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Originally published May 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 21, 2009 at 12:18 PM

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Seattle's day to tell EPA how to fix climate

Today in a meeting hall overlooking Seattle's waterfront, more than 180 people — from the governor to the mayor to high school students — will one by one tell the Obama administration how the U.S. should tackle climate change.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Climate-change hearing

The EPA will take testimony from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. today at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center, 2211 Alaskan Way, Pier 66. Only those who signed up in advance can speak.

A rally in support of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be at noon outside the hearing site.

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It's hard to overstate the significance of the moment.

Today in a meeting hall overlooking Seattle's waterfront, more than 180 people — from the governor to the mayor to several high-school students — will one by one tell the Obama administration how the U.S. should tackle climate change.

From morning until nearly sunset, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will take testimony about its plans to deem global warming a public danger.

The bureaucratic exercise masks a landmark shift in American policy: After 30 years of arguing about whether climate change is real, the federal government is on the brink of regulating the greenhouse gases that scientists say help cause it.

"We are launching into a bold new era here," said Dennis McLarren, director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

"This is a very transitional period," said Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor and expert on environmental economics. "We've now begun moving down a very long road."

Today's hearing, one of just two nationwide — the other was Monday in Arlington, Va. — is a precursor to the EPA's considering new rules to cut carbon emissions.

After declaring greenhouse gases dangerous pollutants last month, the agency could move to control them under the Clean Air Act. EPA's administrator has said the agency would likely focus only on large sources, such as power plants, heavy industry and transportation.

The White House hopes congressional action makes such rules unnecessary. Democrats hope to send a bill capping greenhouse gases to the House floor next month.

Why the EPA chose Seattle for the hearing isn't clear. It declined to make anyone available to answer questions publicly.

But the Obama administration clearly knows its audience. Only a handful of those testifying are expected to oppose EPA intervention, and thousands of others, including some in salmon costumes, are expected to rally outside in support — a sight that would seem far less likely in, say, Houston.

All of that builds momentum toward action.

"In effect, the prospect of EPA regulation is a bulwark against Congress falling down on the job," said Dan Esty, a Yale University environmental professor.

President Obama wants the U.S. on the path to curb emissions 80 percent by 2050, which he has said would put the country in a better position to seek reductions from other nations during international negotiations next winter.

Ideas for reaching Obama's goals range from taxing carbon to drive down emissions to setting a cap and creating a system to trade carbon credits — the solution gaining the most favor on Capitol Hill.

No matter one's politics, few dispute that curbs on carbon seem all but certain. Around the country, "businesses are jumping on board because they see what's coming," said Todd Myers, a conservative political consultant.

The Association of Washington Business, for example, plans to urge the EPA to let Congress take the lead.

Still, what remains to be seen is how and by how much carbon emissions will be cut, and who will bear the cost.

By now the litany of threats from climate change is well-known — from rising sea levels and diminishing Northwest snowpack to the risk of new diseases and more catastrophic wildfires. A recent study led by the University of Oregon suggested the costs to Washington state of doing nothing could reach $3.8 billion a year by 2020.

But action won't be free. Regulating carbon could increase the cost of everything from driving to the store for bread to heating your home, hitting lower-income people hardest.

The increased price of goods and services accompanying a 15 percent cut in carbon-dioxide emissions could cost roughly $1,600 a year for an average household, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"We're moving to end free and unregulated dumping of carbon into the atmosphere," said KC Golden, policy director for Seattle-based Climate Solutions, an advocacy group. "The hard questions are going to be about fairness — the distribution of costs and benefits."

Many ideas exist to address inequities, such as requiring companies that emit carbon to pay for the right to do so, with some of the money returned to consumers as a dividend.

Either way, political watchers agree, the tide has shifted toward action.

"The imperative is the cap," Golden said. "The point is to reduce the quantities of this stuff. The rest of the world has been waiting a very long time."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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