The Democrats are doomed. What better time to tackle climate change?

Democrats in Congress have a lot to juggle in the year ahead. If they want to avoid a slaughter at the polls, they’ll need to boost job growth. Not only that, but Wall Street remains poorly regulated, and key allies are growing impatient for labor-law and immigration reform. So it’s hardly a shock to hear that some Dems would prefer to set aside tackling climate change--especially so soon after a grueling health care fight. “We need to deal with the phenomena of global warming,” Indiana Senator Evan Bayh recently groused, “but I think it’s very difficult in the economic circumstances we have right now.”

Difficult, but maybe less so than Bayh thinks. The House has already passed its own climate bill, complete with a cap on heat-trapping greenhouse gases, and, in the Senate, Democrats have begun to get some welcome support from the other side of the aisle. Susan Collins is co-sponsoring a cap-and-dividend bill, which would essentially tax carbon dioxide at the source and refund most of the proceeds to households, while a few Republicans (like Lisa Murkowski) had positive things to say about last month’s Copenhagen accord, which put key developing countries on a path to curtailing their own emissions. Interestingly, one of the most forceful advocates for a Senate climate bill in recent weeks has been Republican Lindsey Graham. “All the cars and trucks and plants that have been in existence since the Industrial Revolution, spewing out carbon day-in and day-out, you’ll never convince me that’s a good thing for your children and the future of the planet,” he told a crowd in South Carolina, the day after being censured by Charleston County’s GOP for working with Democrats on the issue. “Whatever political pushback I get,” he added, “I’m willing to accept, because I know what I’m trying to do makes sense to me.” Lately, he’s been huddling with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman on a “tripartisan” bill to reduce emissions.

Some have argued that Congress would be crazy to take on an issue as divisive as climate change in an election year, but the Senate, with only one-third of its members up for reelection, is less susceptible to that calculus than the House. And election-year timidity may be more an invention of pundits than historical fact. After all, welfare reform passed in the summer of 1996, while the most recent Clean Air Act amendments--including a cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide-passed the Senate in 1990. Besides, most senators realize that, if they don’t act soon, the Environmental Protection Agency will start regulating carbon-dioxide emissions on its own, cutting Congress out of the process entirely.

Of course, the Senate should act to curb greenhouse gases not to avoid being trumped by the EPA, but to avert an ecological catastrophe that will affect the lives of millions. In the United States, as Bayh’s hesitation shows, much of the debate around climate policy has focused on whether we can shift to cleaner forms of energy without harming the economy in any way. Green groups have taken pains to cite stat-heavy reports from the Congressional Budget Office showing that a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions would have a minimal impact on family budgets and little effect on economic growth. But there’s a large ethical aspect to climate change, too. Hundreds of millions of people in places like Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa are set to suffer from the storms, floods, and crop failures that a hotter planet will bring. And future generations of Americans will have to contend with unstable weather patterns, water shortages, and rising sea levels if we don’t get our emissions under control.

On both scientific and political grounds, time is of the essence. Every year we put off curbing emissions is another year more carbon accumulates in the air, deepening the risks of disaster and making eventual action more difficult. A delay could also shatter the fragile progress made on global emissions over the past few months--both China and India have pledged to rein in their carbon pollution, but they could easily backslide if we do. Worst of all, Democrats are likely to lose at least a few seats in November--and with them, their chances of overcoming a GOP filibuster--so this may be their last chance for some time to set limits on greenhouse gases.

Recently, some senators have talked about breaking up the House bill and passing only the most popular portions, such as the mandate for electric utilities to buy renewable power, or loans for green technology. But those items can’t substitute for a carbon-pricing regime, whether a cap or a tax, that will shift companies away from dirty energy. And splitting off the easy items now could make it more difficult to attract votes for emission limits down the road. The White House seems to recognize this and has so far committed to a major push on carbon-capping legislation in the spring. The bill that emerges won’t be perfect, but its timing may never get better.

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