WASHINGTON, D.C. — In testimony before a Senate panel Thursday, University President Richard Levin called on the federal government to enact legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our future depends on it,” he said.

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The hearing came as the Senate prepares to begin debate on an unprecedented bill that would establish limits on greenhouse gas emissions, a move resoundingly endorsed by Levin and the two other university chancellors who joined him here in front of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which approved the bill in December.

“There’s no doubt,” Levin said in opening his remarks, “that we have a problem.”

Addressing that problem, however, is a more complicated matter, and that is what the committee haggled over on Thursday. Critics of the legislation have argued it would pose an economic hindrance to American industry; Levin, on the other hand, emphasized that Yale and other universities are a perfect example of why that scenario is anything but the case.

“We’re large enough to be a model of responsible environmental practice for other universities and business organizations,” he told the committee. “We’re large enough to demonstrate that greenhouse gas reduction is feasible and affordable.”

Levin found an eager supporter on the committee in Senator Amy Klobuchar ’82, a first-term Democrat of Minnesota who earlier this winter met with the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, in New Haven to discuss the issue of climate change. In an interview with the News on Thursday, Klobuchar praised the University for being on the cutting edge in promoting sustainability.

The hearing — called “Examining Strategies to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions at U.S. Colleges and Universities” — came as senior Democrats were meeting to strategize on rallying support for the greenhouse gas reduction legislation that has become known as the Lieberman-Warner bill, named for its authors, Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 of Connecticut and Sen. John Warner of Virginia.

Klobuchar said she hopes Congress will be able to approve the two senators’ bill in this year’s session.

“Certainly with a new president we’ll be successful, but we think it’s really important to push it as soon as possible,” she said. “I went to Greenland, I saw the ice melting off these icebergs like spigots, and I don’t think we can wait.”

To do his part, meanwhile, Levin went to the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Thursday, where he arrived at the Environment Committee’s stately hearing room accompanied by Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Richard Jacob and Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson.

In his testimony, Levin addressed Yale’s efforts to promote sustainability — including the University’s pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from its 1990 levels by the year 2020, even while Yale will drastically expand its physical presence over that time.

“In these efforts to demonstrate best practices in limiting carbon emissions, we are also teaching our students — who are full participants in this campuswide effort — how to be responsible citizens of the world,” Levin said. “And together we’re learning how to balance near-term economic considerations against the longer-term health of the environment and future human generations.”

That was a point that resonated with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse ’78, a Democrat of Rhode Island whose daughter, Molly, is a freshman in Pierson College. Whitehouse praised Yale for turning its sustainability efforts into an educational — as well as policy — effort.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent of Vermont, said as much, too.

“The degree to which you can involve your student body in greening your campuses, developing sustainable energy, moving toward energy efficiency — what you are doing is educating an entirely new generation who will leave your schools, go out into the world and take the lessons that were learned on your campuses,” Sanders said.

Also testifying during the 70-minute hearing were Jacqueline Johnson, the chancellor of the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

Like Levin, both detailed their own campus’ plans to fight against climate change; at the University of Minnesota, Morris, for instance, a new wind turbine powers half the campus — which will be entirely carbon neutral by 2010, Johnson said in her testimony.

Both Johnson and Levin emphasized that their schools’ greening efforts have not proved financially burdensome. Yale should be able to reach its greenhouse gas reduction goal at a cost of less than 1 percent of Yale’s approximately $2.5 billion annual operating budget, Levin said.

“In our view,” he told the committee, “this added expense is justified, and we believe the leadership of many large organizations will come to the same conclusion.”

But that, he said, is not enough — and Birgeneau agreed, calling the passage of the Lieberman-Warner bill or a similar effort “absolutely critical” for the progress of sustainable policies, lest individual efforts at Berkeley and elsewhere be for naught.

“I feel strongly that while there is so much that universities and other local entities can do to reduce their carbon footprints,” Birgeneau said, “global warming really must be addressed at the national level if we as a nation are going to have the kind of impact we must have to prevent further destruction of our atmosphere.”

The lone dissenting voice at the hearing was Sen. Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, who voted against the Lieberman-Warner bill in December. He praised the role of universities in furthering sustainability and developing new sources of clean energy, but asserted that the federal government should not force such a legislative mandate upon the American economy vis-a-vis what is known as a cap-and-trade system, in which companies are given pollution allowances that may be bought or sold based on their own levels of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the national requirement.

“As we ultimately decide a climate change policy, hopefully we will not distort or damage markets or damage our competitiveness in the world marketplace,” Craig said. “The market … today is with these universities and what they will and what their students will produce. That’s the course of the future of energy — not us thinking we are so smart we can manipulate and play games with it here.”

Levin’s speech was taken in part from his much anticipated address on climate change at the University of Copenhagen in January. But he concluded Thursday on a considerably more forceful note.

“I commend the committee for its thoughtful consideration and approval of legislation that would establish a national system for reducing carbon emissions,” Levin said. “Our future,” he added, “depends on it.”