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Global Warming Debate Heats Up Again

Tidal waves ripping through the streets of Manhattan. Five-pound hail stones pummeling people in Tokyo. A high in Phoenix that reaches only 28 degrees. These are the doomsday scenarios depicted in the recent screen thriller, “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Spurred in part by the film, the legislative debate over global climate change is heating up on Capitol Hill.

Driving the conversation on Capitol Hill is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is pressing for a second vote on the Climate Stewardship Act — a bill sponsored by McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) that was defeated 43-55 last October. The bill establishes a so-called “cap and trade” system that freezes emissions from six greenhouse gases at 2000 levels by 2010 while permitting companies to trade emissions allowances with each other to achieve those goals.

Though some environmental advocates maintain that the McCain-Lieberman emissions caps would help stave off global climate change, opponents counter that such regulation would induce companies to move abroad to less-regulated countries. Moreover, they assert that a cap on carbon dioxide emissions would discourage use of carbon-based fuels, including oil and coal, which could harm major sectors of the American economy.

Such criticism of the bill has not only hampered its advance so far in the Senate, but also left the Republican leadership in the House firmly set against it.

McCain vows that he will use the “first possible vehicle” to push the legislation, but said that his effort to push the bill now was not timed to capitalize on the film’s publicity.

“I’m not sure that affects the thinking of United States Senators, because it’s an exaggerated movie,” McCain said. “But I’ll use anything I can.”

McCain has considered an attempt to add the legislation to a measure that would reform class-action lawsuits that is now moving through the Senate, spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said.

As the McCain-Lieberman camp looks to pick up the eight votes it needs to secure a majority, lobbyists on both sides are prepping for battle.

Last week, the editor of the magazine Science, Donald Kennedy, co-sponsored an academic conference on the threat of global warming. Meanwhile, a coalition of opponents known as United for Jobs have launched a Web site dedicated to the bill’s defeat.

Also last week, Environmental Defense hosted an online “town hall” meeting with McCain and Lieberman to promote the legislation.

Environmental Defense previously harnessed the attention devoted to “The Day After Tomorrow” by issuing a DVD of interviews with scientists who warn that though the film’s plot is exaggerated, the threat of global climate change is real.

“We were very careful, because it is science fiction and you don’t want to in any way create the impression that you’re trying to say that’s what’s going to happen,” said Environmental Defense spokesman Steve Cochran. “But when something like this movie comes along, for just a little bit it kind of raises the issue above all the noise.”

According to Cochran, advocates on both sides are targeting roughly a dozen Senators who voted against the bill last year but who now indicate that they were willing to reconsider.

“There is a certain amount of ideology that accompanies this debate,” he said. Cochran added that his organization expects a vote by the end of the month.

Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that limiting carbon dioxide emissions is politically unsustainable, making it unlikely that McCain will be able to pick up the extra votes.

“If you are going to regulate the emissions of carbon, basically what you are attempting to do is eliminate use of the fuel itself because it is an inescapable byproduct of the fuel,” he said. “The push to regulate carbon dioxide logically in principle is a push to eliminate the use of carbon-based energy.”

Lewis criticized even the watered-down version of the bill, which McCain proposed last fall in an attempt to sway fence-sitters. This version eliminated a second phase that would have frozen emissions at 1990 levels beginning in 2015.

Either version, Lewis said, “is the first step on a road to economic devastation. What he’s got there is a regulatory Pandora’s box. They want their nose under the tent.”

Prospects on the House side appear even dimmer.

“With the amount of time left for legislating, I just don’t see it happening,” said Resource Chairman Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who scoffed at the mention of “The Day After Tomorrow.” “That movie is just a fantasy — it is no more realistic than ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Harry Potter,’” he said.

“I have a lot more respect for Senator McCain than I do for that bill,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton said he is not conceptually opposed to a market-based cap-and-trade system, but he warned that “anything that regulates CO2 is dead on arrival in the House.”

Edith Thompson, a legislative assistant for the bill’s House patron, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), acknowledged the obstacles to addressing climate change.

“The Congressman knew when we introduced the Climate Stewardship Act in the House that it was part of a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We have a long way to go on even bringing up the issue of global warming.”