Will January 2007 prove to be a tipping point for U.S. climate-change policy? Already this month we’ve seen a barrage of high-profile activity — and President Bush hasn’t even given his State of the Union address yet.

Are we at a tipping point?

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First there was a rapid-fire succession of four major climate-change bills proposed in the Senate, all of which call for mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Then, like a clashing of cymbals after a drumroll, 10 major corporations representing the energy and chemical industries, among others, joined with a handful of major environmental groups in a call for federal emission caps that rivals the most ambitious Senate proposals.

The new coalition, dubbed the United States Climate Action Partnership, brings together many of the usual suspects — companies that have been publicly advocating federal action on climate change for some time, like GE, DuPont, Duke Energy, Alcoa, and Pacific Gas and Electric. But never have these corporate heavies articulated such clear and aggressive policy recommendations.

“[Climate regulations] must be mandatory, so there is no doubt about our actions,” said Jim Rogers, CEO and chair of Duke Energy, at a press conference officially launching USCAP on Monday. “The science of global warming is clear. We know enough to act now. We must act now.”

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Executives of the companies involved in the partnership sent a letter to Bush on Monday, one day ahead of the State of the Union speech in which he’s expected to address the climate issue. “[W]e can and must take prompt action to establish a coordinated, economy-wide market-driven approach to climate protection,” the leaders wrote.

The group has already briefed key members of the Senate and House about its recommendations, and will have representatives haunting the halls of Congress to keep the pressure on lawmakers, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a member of USCAP.

This corporate-led call to arms boosts the prospects for a meaningful climate bill in the 110th Congress, some advocates contend. “It raises the bar for what we can expect from politically viable climate legislation in the next two years,” says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, another USCAP member.

Dan Becker of the Sierra Club — which is not involved in the partnership — is less optimistic. “This is the setting-the-table Congress, not the eating-the-meal Congress when it comes to climate legislation,” he argues. “I don’t believe we’re going to get the kind of program we need to seriously address the climate crisis in the next two years.”

Adds Kevin Curtis of National Environmental Trust, also not a USCAP participant, “There’s definitely a growing bubble of excitement that could precipitate a tipping point, but there’s still a lot of political legwork to be done. When you look at the number of votes we currently have in favor of a strong climate plan, they haven’t yet changed all that much.”

The Gang of Four

While the pressure mounts in Washington for a real climate action plan, the big question is this: Which bill will rise to the top?

At one end of the spectrum in the Senate is a proposal from Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It would implement a cap-and-trade program to gradually slow the growth of greenhouse-gas intensity, or the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per dollar of gross domestic product, beginning in 2012, but it wouldn’t actually start reversing the trend until 2020. The proposal also offers a “safety valve” that would limit the amount of money companies would have to spend on emission-reduction efforts or emission allowances.

Bingaman says he has designed a moderate bill capable of rallying broad enough bipartisan support that it “can pass the Congress this year.” He told The New York Times last week, “The way I look at it, it’s a question of what we can get agreement on.”

Many enviros contend that the Bingaman plan wouldn’t cut emissions fast enough, or far enough into the future. “We need to get a climate bill right at the outset because we may not get another chance to revamp it for 10 to 15 years,” says Doniger.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) have introduced a bill that would address emissions only from electric utilities, pushing them 25 percent below projected levels by 2020. Also too little, too late, say enviros. In addition, the bill would allow an unlimited carbon-offset program, meaning that instead of upgrading their technology, power companies could invest in other emission-reducing projects, such as protecting or planting forested areas that absorb carbon dioxide.

The McCain-Lieberman bill is back, jazzed up with a new cosponsor, presidential contender Barack Obama (D-Ill.). It would require industries to reduce their emissions to 2004 levels within five years, and then gradually on down to 66 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. “For the most part, this is a very serious bill — it’s not chopped liver,” says Doniger. The only hitch, from his perspective, is that it includes hefty subsidies for nuclear power. (Incidentally, nuclear power is also included among the technologies that USCAP endorses, apparently a trade-off that the enviros involved were willing to make in establishing the partnership.)

The measure that has environmentalists almost unanimously cheering is sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), first introduced by Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) in the last Congress. The Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act calls for 80 percent emission reductions from 1990 levels by 2050, which would be achieved through a series of tough targets along the way, combined with incentives for clean energy technologies.

Boxer referred to this bill as the “gold standard” — perhaps implying a lofty and unreachable goal. But when USCAP released its recommendations, the Sanders-Boxer proposal took on a new level of political viability.

The Climate Action Partnership’s proposed targets lie somewhere between those of the McCain-Lieberman-Obama bill and the Sanders-Boxer bill. Surprisingly farsighted, the group calls for nationwide greenhouse-gas reductions of 10 to 30 percent below current levels over the next 15 years, and 60 to 80 percent below current levels by 2050.

“What you have here is industry saying we need market certainty not just 10 or 15 years out, but also 50 years out,” says Doniger. Since these companies make large-scale investments in equipment and technology that will be in use for several decades, they are better off knowing far in advance what restrictions they will face.

Senate and Sensibility

But while more and more major companies are recognizing the need for dramatic action to forestall climate change, it’s not clear that enough senators are. The Senate has rejected weaker versions of the McCain-Lieberman bill twice before, last time by a margin of 22 votes (38 yeas to 60 nays). When you factor in the five new Democrats and one new Dem-leaning independent now in the Senate, the numbers still don’t add up to more than 45 yea votes for meaningful climate legislation, environmental insiders say — 15 short of the 60 needed to fend off a filibuster.

Even if the Senate beats tall odds and passes an ambitious climate plan, formidable roadblocks could remain in the House, where Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan — an admitted climate skeptic — has jurisdiction over global-warming legislation as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attempted to circumvent this obstacle last week by creating a special committee on climate concerns. That ticked off Dingell, who said the new committee “won’t prosper if I have anything to say about it.” Still, Dingell has announced that he’ll put climate change at the top of his committee’s agenda, and that Al Gore will be the first person invited to testify on the issue.

And then there’s Dubya. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow has repeatedly shot down rumors that the president would make a U-turn and voice support for emissions limits. “There’s been some talk about, sort of, binding, economy-wide carbon caps in the [State of the Union] speech, but they are not part of the president’s proposal,” Snow said on Monday.

Sobering though this may be, there are still reasons to hope that unexpected — and unexpectedly vast — change might occur in the coming months. ExxonMobil, by far the most formidable corporate foe of climate legislation, has started participating in meetings in Washington about how emission restrictions should be structured.

Perhaps more importantly, citizens from around the country are flocking to the new Step It Up campaign, volunteering to organize rallies in their communities on April 14 to demand a federal bill as ambitious as the Sanders-Boxer proposal. Head organizer Bill McKibben anticipates that the day of action could bring about a sea change. “It’s very clear now that this is going to be by far the biggest demonstration against global warming the U.S. has ever seen, and perhaps the world as well,” he writes in Grist.

If so, Washington will surely be watching.