Will EPA's Health Hazard Decision Spur Climate Action?

April 20, 2009

Will EPA's Health Hazard Decision Spur Climate Action?

The Environmental Protection Agency just released a landmark decision concluding that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to human health and welfare. The action was based on a 2007 Supreme Court ruling ordering EPA to assess the health impacts of climate change. The Bush White House never completed that study. Now the Obama EPA is in position to slap controls on U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants -- although the agency indicated that it won't rush to impose new regulations.

Will the EPA's action compel Congress to pass climate change legislation? How will it impact U.S. industry? Will the Obama administration's willingness to consider greenhouse gas regulations make it easier for the White House to negotiate an international treaty at the December United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change? If Congress is slow to pass climate change legislation, should EPA begin regulating those pollutants?

-- Margaret Kriz, NationalJournal.com


Nobody should be surprised by the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare. It sends a clear signal that any further delay of action will only prove more costly for the environment and economy. This decision rests literally on thousands of pages of peer reviewed scientific studies that have been synthesized as part of both national and international assessments. And it responds to nothing less than a Supreme Court decision requiring the EPA to stop ducking the issue and to take a stand.

Nor should anybody be surprised that the EPA will move forward in its regulatory process.  That’s simply complying with the rule of law. But this path forward is fraught with challenges. The Clean Air Act clearly wasn’t designed with climate change in mind, and whatever specific regulations the EPA proposes (or not) will end up in the courts creating additional uncertainty, if not delay.

But there is a better way. EPA’s initial regulatory process will take at least a year, and will likely play out over many years. That gives Congress some time, but not a lot, to take control of this issue and to develop a comprehensive, economy-wide approach to shift the nation to a clean energy economy. They are off to a good start with the Waxman-Markey discussion draft, though some of the toughest issues remain to be addressed. Many in Congress understand that the costs of doing nothing on climate change are far greater than the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that progress on comprehensive domestic action will send an important signal to the international community that the time to act is now.


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