Capitol Hill meltdown
While the nation sizzles, Congress fiddles over measures to slow down future climate change
By Dick Thompson/Washington
August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)
Jay Gilbo, 21, may have the hottest job on Capitol Hill. Each
workday he puts on two suits, one over the other, both made of
materials that seal out dust but trap heat. Then he wraps his
wrists and ankles, pulls a rubber respirator over his head and
climbs more than 200 ft. into the narrow space between the
Capitol's inner and outer domes. Gilbo, who lives in Georgetown,
Mass., is part of a 10-man crew removing poisonous lead paint
from cast-iron walls in temperatures that regularly soar above
100[degrees]F. "It's a pretty hostile environment," says Gilbo,
who says he sweats off 4 lbs. during every 12-hour shift.
Millions of Americans last week knew the feeling; sauna-like
conditions have gripped much of the country, from the East Coast
to the Rockies. The sweltering heat has left at least 100 people
dead since mid-July, mostly in the Midwest. Drought emergencies
were declared in scores of counties, from Montana to Maryland.
Roads buckled under a blazing sun. Crops shriveled after weeks
without rain. And with air conditioners and fans at full tilt,
utilities strained to meet electrical demand.
But for all the heat Gilbo and his fellow citizens were
experiencing, the legislators working under those sizzling domes
seemed remarkably cool--not just about the weather outside but
also about what it might portend. While a single heat wave
doesn't make a worldwide meltdown (see following story), a great
many scientists believe that by continuing to pump greenhouse
gases into the atmosphere, humans are forcing drastic climate
changes. Yet Congress seems determinedly indifferent. As the
lawmakers prepare for their summer adjournment, legislative
efforts to slow that warming by reducing greenhouse emissions
have all but ground to a halt. Withering too, like so many
cornstalks, are other major pro-environmental bills: increased
funding for research on energy sources other than fossil fuels;
incentives to encourage industries to cut emissions; efforts to
clean up power plants; and measures to raise fuel-efficiency
standards for gas-slurping SUVs, vans and light trucks. Just
about the only measure likely to pass is, of all things, an order
requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to give equal time
to dissenting views whenever it conducts educational programs on
climate. Congress, says Environmental Defense Fund lobbyist Steve
Cochran, has become "completely dysfunctional" on global warming.
It is a case of dysfunction that has drawn scant public
attention. Instead of putting together a large single proposal,
Congress has been nibbling at the global-warming issue piecemeal,
with opponents throwing up obstacles at almost every turn in the
form of directives and riders tacked on to major spending bills
so they slip through the legislative process virtually unnoticed.
This tactic has environmentalists, no slouches at publicity
themselves, crying foul. "A lot of these [proposals] could never
be moved in the light of day," says Greg Wetstone, a
congressional watchdog for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
One example of congressional road-blocking involves attempts to
raise fuel-efficiency standards for popular sport-utility
vehicles and vans, which have long had a free ride by being
classified as light trucks. For the past four years, opponents
have annually attached a rider to the Department of
Transportation's budget prohibiting the DOT from raising the
standards to equal those for ordinary cars--a move
environmentalists say would save 1 million bbl. of oil a day.
Backers of the rider argue that they are protecting auto-industry
jobs and giving consumers the vehicles they want, but now they
are running into stronger opposition. Next week the Senate may
consider a complicated parliamentary move proposed by three
Senators--one Republican, Slade Gorton of Washington, and two
Democrats, Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Bryan of
Nevada--that could finally overturn the rider, though at last
count they were still three votes shy.
While Congress remains bitterly divided along party lines on
other issues, opposition to climate-change initiatives has
surprisingly broad support on both sides of the aisle. Some
lawmakers dismiss worries about global warming as little more
than "liberal claptrap," as California Republican Representative
Dana Rohrabacher puts it. Others interpret the climate moves as a
sly attempt by the Administration to enact by bits and pieces
what the Senate declared it would not do when it voted 95-0 to
oppose the Kyoto treaty, an international pact to reduce
greenhouse-gas emissions that is strongly supported by Vice
President Al Gore. Moreover, some politicians fall back on the
uncertainty argument, asserting that the enactment of costly
preventive measures now, before all the evidence is in, would
invite economic disaster. Still others use the debate as an
opportunity to portray Democratic presidential contender Gore,
author of the environmental tract Earth in the Balance and the
U.S. representative at Kyoto, as an environmental extremist.
The White House admits it has no grand strategy for pushing its
climate-change initiatives on Capitol Hill, other than to wait
for the evolving science and climbing temperatures to overwhelm
the critics. Instead the Administration is concentrating on
energy efficiency, which President Clinton calls a "win-win"
approach, arguing that it is a win for the environment as well as
the economy. But it also has political drawbacks--offending such
traditional Democratic constituencies as the miners who could
lose their jobs if the demand for coal drops, and rallying the
opposition of powerful industries like oil and the utilities,
which would face traumatic changes by a switch away from fossil
As for the presidential candidates, they range from naysayers to
true believers on global warming. Is it really happening?
Undoubtedly, said Gore, his party's top contender, when TIME
questioned the major candidates. He added, "There is overwhelming
scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to
global warming." Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, another
Democratic hopeful, acknowledged that it was a "serious threat."
But the G.O.P. candidates sounded less certain. Texas Governor
George W. Bush, his party's front runner, and Elizabeth Dole both
agreed that the earth is getting warmer but professed to be
agnostic about the cause, saying only that the question should be
taken "seriously." Steve Forbes, for his part, had no doubts: "I
don't believe it," he said of global warming.
But there is pressure on Congress to confront the issue, and it
is coming from an unexpected quarter: the business community.
While commercial interests joined forces to block the Kyoto
treaty in the Senate two years ago, the opposition has since
splintered. Even such big oil companies as BP Amoco concede that
global warming demands a serious response. Just two weeks ago, a
subgroup of FORTUNE 500 companies known as the Business
Roundtable called on government to encourage the development of
advanced technologies to "address concerns about climate change."
And when he visited Washington recently, Ford Motor chairman Bill
Ford said, "We believe that for the public--which includes our
customers and shareholders--environmental preservation is going to
be one of the most important issues of the 21st century."
Still, since today's greenhouse gases will remain in the
atmosphere for a century even if all further emissions are cut
off immediately, environmentalists are growing increasingly
concerned that their window of opportunity to slow down warming
is slamming shut. Says Michael Oppenheimer, the Environmental
Defense Fund's chief scientist: "The world is already committed
to a significant level of warming, no matter what we do."
As for the current heat wave, the National Weather Service says
there won't be much relief until late August. And from Joe
Gilbo's perch high in the Capitol, the hot air may be felt for
much longer than that.
--With reporting by Brian Allen/Washington
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Cover Date: August 9, 1999