Negotiators for a new global warming treaty pressed Congress on Tuesday to approve legislation this year to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases.
Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator, was among those calling for a new law to be enacted before treaty talks begin in December in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"The optimum would be legislation that is signed, sealed and delivered," said Stern, who was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the U.S. envoy for climate negotiations.
"It's been a long time now that countries have been looking for the United States to lead and take action," Stern said. "I think nothing would give a more powerful signal to other countries in the world than to see a significant, major, mandatory American plan."
Stern's comments were echoed by international leaders attending a symposium in Washington on climate policy. These leaders urged the U.S. to act despite a faltering economy.
"We are also being provided with an opportunity now to rethink business as usual," said Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister for climate and energy. "Tackling global challenges, like that of the economy, we cannot do that without the United States. So we need the U.S. to engage."
The Bush administration pulled out of the last global climate change treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, citing a lack of participation by developing countries and potential harm to the U.S. economy. In the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration, the Senate balked at ratifying the agreement.
All eyes are now on the Obama administration. Stern summarized the new president's position in two words: "We're back."
Even Stern acknowledged that a climate bill by year's end was a tall order.
House Democratic leaders are planning to take up legislation setting up a mandatory cap and trade system for greenhouse emissions sometime this summer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would like the Senate to vote on a bill after the August recess.
Under cap-and-trade, the government would establish a market for carbon dioxide by selling credits to companies that emit greenhouse gases. The companies can then invest in technologies to reduce emissions to reach a certain target or buy credits from other companies who already have met their emission reduction goals.
President Barack Obama has called for an 83 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by the year 2050 using cap-and-trade. His recently released budget banks on raising $646 billion in revenues from 2012 to 2019 from auctioning emission credits to companies. The money would fund renewable energy projects and provide a tax credit to help families cope with higher energy prices.
But there is widespread dispute over the details of how cap and trade would work, with critics saying it would lead to higher costs for American consumers and could hurt an already bruised economy.
Duke Energy Corp. CEO Jim Rogers, a supporter of cap and trade legislation, previewed the debate to come. He said the Obama administration should redirect all money from the sale of credits to solving the "ecological crisis of our time."
Rogers said that as written now, Obama's budget would transfer wealth from the Southeastern and Midwestern states that depend more on coal for energy to coastal states where other fuels are used to produce electricity.