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An expert panel asked by Congress to recommend ways to deal with global warming said Thursday that the U.S. should not wait to substantially reduce the pollution responsible and any efforts to delay action would be shortsighted.
But that's exactly what Republicans and some Democrats in Congress are trying to do.
With a majority in the House and many freshman lawmakers skeptical of the science behind climate change, Republicans are pushing measures to block the federal government from controlling greenhouse gases.
The House passed a bill to do that last month. An identical measure failed to get enough votes in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but a majority there did support reining in the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to reduce heat-trapping pollution.
The report released Thursday from a 22-member panel assembled by the National Research Council strongly suggests that the U.S. should be heading in a different direction. But it also recognizes that some strategies may be politically infeasible.
"We know enough, know that acting sooner is better than acting later, and that uncertainty is a reason for acting rather than not acting," said Albert Carnesale, the chairman of the committee, which included scientists, economists, former politicians and business leaders.
"Politics are different now, and they will change over time," said Carnesale, an engineer and chancellor emeritus at the University at California Los Angeles. The recommendations the panel is making, he said, will be relevant years down the road.
The report is the last in a series requested by Congress in 2008, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. It offers a stern warning about the risks of global warming and irrefutably affirms what it says is a preponderance of scientific evidence showing that pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is to blame.
With every ton of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere, the panel says, the U.S. is putting itself more at risk and increasing how much it will cost to reduce pollution later.
The best and most economical way to address global warming, the panel concludes, is to put a price on carbon pollution through a tax or a market-based system. The Democratic-led House, with the support of President Barack Obama, passed a bill nearly two years ago that would have set up a market for greenhouse gas emissions. It died in the Senate amid concerns that it would raise energy prices and a Republican campaign calling it "cap-and-tax."
Obama said after the election last year that he would seek other ways to combat global warming, since the new House majority would not support his preferred approach.
At a meeting in New York Thursday with Associated Press editors and reporters, U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said that Congress' failure to pass legislation is a "very serious hand brake" on global efforts to fight global warming.
"I don't think it's a permanent state of affairs that the world will be able to live with," said Figueres of the U.S. stance. The U.S. is alone among industrial countries in rejecting the existing global agreement.
The expert panel Thursday said the next-best ways to reduce pollution would be to expand efforts at the local, state and regional levels and for the federal government to adopt standards under the Clean Air Act. The EPA's use of that law is what Republicans in Congress are attacking.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who drafted the bill that passed the House in 2009, said the committee's conclusions should be a wake-up call.
"Republicans in the House should be ashamed of their votes denying climate change and handcuffing the Environmental Protection Agency," Waxman said. "If we wait to act, it may be too late to save the planet from irreversible changes."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who attempted to get a similar bill through the Senate, said Thursday that he didn't know what additional proof was needed to prompt action on global warming.
"They should use these scientific findings as more than kindling in the bonfire of partisanship that's stood in the way," Kerry said.
But Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., one of Congress' most vocal skeptics of the science behind global warming and the sponsor of a Senate bill to bar EPA from reducing greenhouse gases, seemed undeterred by the panel's findings.
"What is clear and irrefutable is that the NRC's proposals to address climate change would impose massive costs without meaningful benefits," Inhofe said, referring to the belief that U.S. action alone would do little to help reduce the Earth's rising temperature. The panel recognized the global nature of the problem, but focused on the task assigned to it by Congress -- what the U.S. response should be.
Advocates pressing for action and dismayed at the course Congress is taking said Thursday they hoped lawmakers heeded the report's message.
"House leaders can choose to ignore this advice and side with polluters over the public's health if they like," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "But they can't hide behind a veil of scientific uncertainty if they continue to take this dangerous course."
Associated Press Special Correspondent Charles J. Hanley in New York contributed to this report.
National Research Council www.nationalacademies.org/nrc
Dina Cappiello can be reached at http://twitter.com/dinacappiello