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.