Rep. Gilchrest: Stop Climate Change Now

Wayne Gilchrest is a Republican Congressman from Maryland. He chairs the House Climate Change Caucus and has co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to 70% below 1990 levels. Because of his reluctance to deny human responsibility for climate change, Gilchrest was not chosen by Republican leader John Boehner to serve on the recently formed bipartisan Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. At the end of March, FPIF contributor Michael Shank interviewed Gilchrest in Washington, DC about Kyoto, the congressional tipping point for climate change legislation, and the challenges posed by India and China.

Michael Shank: What can we expect from Congress this year concerning climate change legislation? Do you think Congress will be able to hash out a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax…what do you see?

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest: I think Congress for the first time in ten or fifteen years has a real opportunity — in this Congress, within the next year — to produce a viable cap-and-trade program, to reduce greenhouse gases, and integrate that with most of the international community.

There are some difficulties in understanding how to do that economy-wide. There are differences of opinion on how to have a cap-and-trade program with other countries or whether it should just be a U.S. cap-and-trade. So, there are a number of things that need to be worked out, but if we pursue this the right way and people are objective about it — which I think most people will be as they acquire more knowledge — I think there’s a possibility that the United States could have a cap-and-trade program that could be integrated with the international community in this Congress, maybe within the next year.

Shank: Senator Boxer is suggesting an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050. Do you think this is feasible, both logistically and politically?

Gilchrest: There’s no question that we’re at a time when we need strong bold initiatives. This is not something where we have decades to deal with it. When you create legislation, it’s around for a long time before it’s changed. So going into this thing we’ve got to be bold. I think the percentage below 1990 levels by 2050 – whether it’s 80% or 70% or even 60% is not as critical as getting something done that is relatively bold. If you get a good economy-wide cap and trade program in place you get at the source of carbon, which is oil. It’s not: “do we need a CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standard that’s this or that.” Then you really get into the minutiae of things and it becomes much more difficult.

I think this thing is just going to take off. And it’s going to take a few months, if not close to a year, to figure it out. Very few people have a frame of reference for understanding how a trading system works: what the allowances are, what you pay for a ton of carbon dioxide, who determines that, does it go up in the marketplace, etc. There are a lot of little nuances here that have to be figured out and then agreed to. And if we are serious about it, I think that can be done, within about a year’s time.

Shank: This House Select Committee on climate change that Speaker Pelosi assembled and that Rep. Markey is heading, what do you make of Rep. Boehner’s assignments to that committee?

Gilchrest: John Boehner was elected to the leadership and certainly has the option to appoint anyone he wants. John has told me that the people on that select committee were carefully chosen so that they would not be biased and that they would view all the information very objectively. If they can do that…

I was sitting right next to John Shadegg (R-AZ) today in the hearing that dealt with cap-and-trade and next to John Shadegg was Joe Barton (R-TX) and Fred Upton (R-MI) from an auto industry state, and on that committee, the standing committee, was Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and a number of my Republican colleagues. They were hearing what they needed to hear: how the economy can improve with a cap-and-trade, not only reducing greenhouse gases but increasing, in an extraordinary fashion, job opportunities through new technological advances. Granted they’re hearing this because the Democrats called the witnesses, but they’re hearing it.

I think the pressure from both the Democrats and Republicans to be objective in this new select committee is there because of the overwhelming evidence and information. Not only that global warming is occurring because of natural causes and being exacerbated because of human activity but that there’s a way out, that it’s not impossible. It’s not that we have to kill the economy. It’s not that everybody’s going to have to pay ten times more for electricity. None of that will occur if we do this thing right.

Shank: Let’s explore the economic aspect further. That’s one of the reasons why the United States never ratified Kyoto: there were concerns that it would undermine or destroy the economy. If that is not the case, and it sounds like the hearing today disputed that notion, how does one respond to that claim?

Gilchrest: First of all, at the time of Kyoto in the early 1990s there was no precedent for an economic structure that used the market for dealing with pollution. There was no cap-and-trade program in existence for anybody to take a look at and see how it works.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the cap-and-trade program started with acid rain. Now, ten or twelve years later, we’ve seen it evolve into something that actually works. But there was no frame of reference or precedent for anybody to take a look at a cap-and-trade program dealing with carbon dioxide or six other greenhouse gases, let alone how do you capture it. The concept of sequestering it deep into the ground was still a myth at the time; the concept that you could sequester it in farm fields was not clearly understood.

If we had started with Kyoto and put a cap on greenhouse gases back in 1992 and said we wanted to let the market take over and create inventive ways to become more efficient, to create new technology, to find alternative fuels, we’d be ten or fifteen years ahead of where we are now.

But we understand a lot better now how a cap-and-trade program, working with the market, provides huge incentives to find alternative fuels, fascinating technology, and much more efficiency. People are much less skeptical now than they were before.

Shank: How do you think the United States will prepare for 2012? The conversation is already taking place as far as international treaties are concerned, i.e. once Kyoto ends, what do we do now? Will the United States be preemptively engaged in that conversation and, if so, what in your opinion should replace Kyoto?

Gilchrest: Kyoto, first of all, doesn’t work without the United States. So Kyoto, for all intents and purposes, has been dissolved. You can’t do it just with the European Union and the Chicago Climate Exchange and a couple places in Africa or a couple places in Asia. This has to be a worldwide thing. Unless the United States takes off on this, you won’t see much movement with China or India either. Like it or not, and this is not an arrogant statement, the world is waiting for the United States to move on this.

It’s not that people aren’t working on this now — England has its own cap-and-trade, the European Union has its cap-and-trade, China wants to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% in their industry by about the year 2012. But a bold initiative by the United States in a leadership role — to center our economy, which is so big, on a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases because we want a new energy source — would be a powerful bold move that the rest of the world will follow.

Shank: When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. mayors are on board with their Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, U.S. governors are on board with a cap-and-trade system, even the EU is on board, setting aggressive emissions reduction targets at a recent summit. You’re seeing this movement around the world. What is the tipping point that will help Congress and the administration to be as aggressive as they need to be on climate change?

Gilchrest: Nancy Pelosi has made a tipping point one of her goals in the House. A tipping point would be a lot easier if George Bush had a press conference and told the world that the United States wanted to reduce greenhouse gases with the rest of the world and let’s figure out how to do it within a certain timeframe.

But we can’t wait for the president to take bold initiative with climate change. It has to happen now. There’s no real tipping point here. It’s just rough, face-to-face, gravel politics. We’re walking through three feet of snow or three feet of mud. Or we’re in quick sand and we’re trying to move forward and we’re pulling a lot of weight behind us. Or it’s like paddling a canoe against the wind upstream with a thousand pound block as an anchor in the water from a chain.

The tipping point is to cut the dead wood or the anchor off and go ahead. But you’re not going to cut the dead wood off or the anchor off. You just have to keep going. So this is a struggle, a very hard struggle. We hope we can succeed in this Congress. Our goal is to get some legitimate piece of legislation out within this Congress that substantially reduces greenhouse gases. There’s no tipping point to make that easy. It’s going to be hard all the way through.

Shank: The American public is trying to become more engaged; the film An Inconvenient Truth undoubtedly helped spur that consciousness. And ultimately it is up to consumers — since the United States produces approximately 25% of the world’s global warming pollutants — to be more efficient or conserve. Do you think the American public is ready for that? Are they willing to make that switch?

Gilchrest: It’s all about education. What they don’t know is going to hurt them. What they do know is going to help solve these problems. How do you awake this sleeping giant called America that is lethargic because it’s well fed, well housed, well clothed, and well entertained? How do you break out of that cycle? An Inconvenient Truth, the movie, was one significant way to do it.

Educators in all our public schools, which are or should be the epicenter of intellectual thought, should begin making this a high priority in their curriculum. Colleges and universities should make it a high priority. Churches should make it a high priority: preserving God’s creation. People who are in positions of authority should be relentlessly pursuing this as an issue.

Don’t drive if you don’t have to. Drive with somebody else. Change your light bulbs. Change your lifestyle. Begin asking questions. Figure out how to use less energy. Turn the thermostat down. Put on layers of clothes. There have been books published. There are pamphlets out there on what you can do as a citizen. You don’t have to be an expert on the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or CO2 parts per million, or ancient climate cycles.

And it’s going to help your bottom line. You turn the heat down, you turn the lights off, you get new light bulbs, you drive less, you drive slower, you use less energy all the way around, and it helps you spend less money.

Shank: It’s often been argued that since China and India, who are about to surpass the United States as top producers of global warming pollutants, didn’t get engaged in Kyoto then the United States shouldn’t either, i.e. the United States is not going to take an aggressive leadership role until they do. Why does the United States defer to their leadership, and can the United States do some climate change diplomacy, or whatever we want to call it, to bring in China and India so that the United States doesn’t keep using them as an excuse for inaction?

Gilchrest: Using China and India as an excuse is a backward concept. China and India have both recognized the science of global warming. There’s no dispute within the Indian government or the Chinese government that human activity is causing the climate to change. And they are actually taking steps to improve their production of greenhouse gases. There are a number of places in India that are a part of the Chicago Climate Exchange. So these two countries recognize it. They’re in a struggle about how to maintain and improve their economies because they don’t yet have the technology to deal with all these greenhouse gas issues.

So what do we do? We should pursue a reduction in greenhouse gases, a policy of cap-and-trade economy-wide as quickly and as efficiently and as intelligently as we can. And continue to negotiate that cap-and-trade program with the Chinese and the Indians openly. This should be an open dialogue, a conversation, not where we’re talking at them or against them, but where we have a conversation, where we all can do this together. We ought to do that soon: sooner rather than later.

Michael Shank is the government relations officer at George Mason University