The Senate defeated a bill that would have prevented the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Large greenhouse gas emitters, like coal plants and oil refineries, could be subject to federal regulation as early as next year. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was defeated by a vote of 53-47, but the fact that six Democrats—Evan Bayh (D-IN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mark Pryor (D-AR) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV)—voted for the bill suggests that even with a million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day, Congress is not likely to pass climate change legislation this year.
Murkowski's bill was a reponse the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency that the EPA was required under the Clean Air Act to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases if the scientific evidence suggests—as it clearly does—that they contribute to climate change. Supporters of the Murkowski bill argued that regulating greenhouse emissions would hurt the economy, and that Congress, not a government agency, should decide what regulation is necessary. Opponents argued that staving off global warming is well worth the cost, and worried that left to its own devices Congress might never make the hard political decisions necessary to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. How much and how exactly to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases are obviously serious questions.
What's not serious, as Steve Benen points out, is some of the rhetoric used by supporters of the Murkowski bill. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), for instance, said, "People are breathing out CO2 all the time. Would that be a violation of the Clean Air Act under this law?" No one is considering regulating human breathing, of course. And Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) objected to regulating carbon emissions on the grounds that "Without carbon, my trees would die. Carbon occurs naturally." Never mind that the bill is an attempt to lower carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to historical levels, and that there is no danger running out of carbon dioxide for his trees to breathe. Or, for that matter, that lots of natural things can be harmful in large quantities. As Benen points out, this kind of rhetoric isn't new. Just last year, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) worried that "if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere?" Shimkus' comments led the National Wildlife Federation to wonder if he seriously believed that there we were emitting too little carbon dioxide, or that plants really "only came along after humans learned how to start burning fossil fuels."
These comments would all just be a joke if they weren't taken seriously by such a large part of the public. While we certainly should have a debate about how and to what extent we should regulate carbon emissions, it's worth bearing in mind, as Benen says, that "no one is trying to eliminate carbon. The goal is to reduce emissions, not ban one of the most abundant elements in the known universe. Plant life existed before the Industrial Revolution, and plant life will thrive even if cap-and-trade becomes law."