EPA’s finding on greenhouse gases is a game changer

As delegates confer at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, an action taken in Washington on Monday will likely mark the week’s most important progress in addressing the effects of global warming.
On the same day the Copenhagen summit began, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare, triggering a regulatory process to deal with emissions from power plants and other industry, cars and agriculture.
The EPA’s “endangerment” finding is a game changer, moving the issue into the realm of direct health effects on you and your neighbor rather than the amorphous matter of how warming may be affecting earth somewhere else.

“Public health issues are often more compelling to people than things they don’t experience directly or they think are years off,” said Bill Grant, Midwest director of the Izaak Walton League. “If Congress wasn’t convinced before that EPA would act, they should no longer be under that delusion.” 
Political dangers in moving fast
Already, members of Congress are expressing fears of hasty bureaucratic meddling and unwanted burdens as the nation struggles through economic recovery. Major actions like EPA’s invariably lead to congressional pushback, and administration officials know the political danger of moving ahead too fast with any regulatory effort.
Industry advocates are threatening to sue to prevent regulatory impositions; some even question the scientific basis for EPA’s finding. Others see the timing of EPA’s action as evidence that President Barack Obama intends to go to Copenhagen next week and show the world that one of the world’s top polluters is ready to step up and lead after 12 years of dallying in denial and delay since the last the last major climate summit in Kyoto, Japan.
While EPA’s action will surely lead to high-level push-pull, there’s reason to believe that an “endangerment” finding puts the Obama administration in a strong position to take significant steps to reduce carbon and other emissions.
Here’s why:
• The EPA action is on solid legal footing. In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case brought in Massachusetts by more than a dozen advocacy groups, ruled that carbon and other greenhouse gasses are pollutants under the 1990 federal Clean Air Act and must be regulated. The case has been exhaustively litigated for a decade, making the success of further appeals unlikely.   
• The Congress itself passed the Clean Air Act and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which provide a strong basis for rule-making to deal with health-based air-quality threats including carbon from automobiles.
• The public understands health effects of degraded air; people can see sullied skies and they know that respiratory ailments are caused and aggravated by air pollution. If Congress seeks to rein in the EPA, it would have to undo laws that it has already painstakingly considered and passed with broad public support.

EPA to focus on big polluters
For its part, the EPA has indicated it will proceed carefully.

“We can begin reducing emissions from the largest greenhouse gas emitting facilities without placing an undue burden on the businesses that make up the vast majority of our economy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. She said rules would target only the largest sources — industry and transportation — responsible for nearly 70 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 
This means that coal-fired power plants will likely continue to switch to natural gas from coal, that future plants like the recently canceled Big Stone II power plant won’t be built, that large plants will be required to reduce carbon emissions, and that cars and light trucks will have much more stringent tailpipe-emission controls by 2016.
Politically tougher emissions — like methane from agriculture and landfills — likely won’t be included in the first regulatory round.
In the nearer term, watch what President Obama tells the U.N. summit next week in Copenhagen, and how the U.S. Senate responds. Two major measures to deal with carbon emissions — a cap-and-trade bill and a milder climate-change bill — continue to languish. 
Regarding the EPA’s action, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said “the message to Congress is clear — get moving.”

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/10/2009 - 10:00 am.

    I’m one of the few skeptics of man-made global warming on the left. I’ve just had too much experience with IR spectroscopy to see where CO2 is a problem. Plus, the increase in temperature is so tiny in absolute terms, well within what our planet has experienced, that it’s hard for me to see this as anything other than noise.

    However, I applaud this decision. There is no doubt that there are many other reasons for regulating our overall carbon emissions. Health concerns are only one good reason to make this move, and the EPA is right to do it.

    I do not believe that this move should not be thrown into the current debate on whether global warming is real and/or man-made at all. It’s simply a prudent thing to do no matter what. If we can’t watch our overall hydrocarbon consumption just for health reasons, the least we can do is to get serious about how much money we sent to dictators like Hugo Chavez.


  2. Submitted by Brian David on 12/10/2009 - 01:10 pm.

    Erik, I appreciate your points concerning reasons other than global warming that we should regulate or control green house gasses. They are often issues that get lost in the overall controversy.

    However, it is crucial to consistently remind people, especially skeptics, of these basic facts:

    -The consensus among the scientific community that global warming is happening, that it is to some degree caused by green house gases, and that it is to some degree caused by human activity, is staggering. There has rarely in history been such a nearly total consensus on such a controversial issue.

    -To suggest global warming is not real and not a danger, you must believe that either a) the majority of experts are wrong, or b) there is some kind of MASSIVE conspiracy the likes of which has never been seen that is bent on convincing people that global warming is real, the goal of which is. . .actually, what would the goal be? No one ever explains that part.

    PRO-TIP: If you’re considering a response to these issues that involves either the media-manufactured ‘global cooling’ scare of the 70s or the recent and inconsequential ‘climategate’ scandal, then you should probably do a bit more reading first.

  3. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/10/2009 - 02:54 pm.


    Once again, there are many reasons to regulate our use of hydrocarbons. However, the great “consensus” of scientists has been wrong many times before and will be again.

    Global temperatures have recently risen 0.6 degrees Kelvin (same as Centigrade) above the long-term average:


    Thesis: This is a man-made phenomenon
    Antithesis: This is a natural phenomenon

    Can we disprove the Antithesis? Consider that over the 11-year sunspot cycle we know solar output varies. This is not well quantified, but may be as high as 0.2%:


    The total “anomaly” seen since 1900 has been 0.6 K on a planet running about 287 K, which is to say about 0.2%. Not only that, but we know that absorption of radiation goes as T^4 AND that we have seen a dramatic increas in sunspot activity which seems to be a proxy for total solar output since 1900.

    We cannot disprove the Antithesis. QED.

    Do you have a problem with this? I consider it a very open question – and I have not gotten into the questions raised by over absorption of CO2 in the Infrared band versus water, which is far more prevalent in the Troposphere.

    Once again, there are many reasons to regulate hydrocarbons. To call me a “Denier” because I insist that we carefully apply the Scientific Method to this problem is something I find outrageous – and many people gleeful have been doing this lately.

    It is an interesting debate that we have shown we, as a society, are nowhere near mature enough to have. I find that disturbing.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/10/2009 - 03:11 pm.

    Erik, I think everyone can appreciate the fact that you are coming at this in good faith and that despite your doubts about the science, you believe emissions should be regulated. Nevertheless, your approach isn’t much different from most denialists in that you think you are on to something that the climate scientists have missed. Seriously, do you think these guys haven’t looked at the sunspot cycles? The reality is that they have spent years pouring over the exact things you cite, but you accuse them of not carefully using the scientific method while relying on an out-of-context wikipedia cite.


  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/10/2009 - 04:06 pm.

    Hugo Chavez is not a dictator, but rather a president who has been reelected over and over in spite of U.S. support for the right-wing wealthy elite that comprises his opponents.

    This support included our assistance, using the International Republican Institute (headed by John McCain) to funnel State Department democracy-building funds, to help with the attempted coup in 2002 and any amount of undercutting after that.

    See Mark Weisbrot’s columns at http://www.cepr.net in which he debunks the Bush administration’s anti-Chavez propaganda from 2002 to 2007.

  6. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/10/2009 - 04:17 pm.


    I do not care about “sides” and I do not care about popularity. I care about logic and scientific rigor.

    The fact is that there has not been a very good measurement of solar variation, but it appears to be on the order of 0.1%. The temperature of this planet has changed about 0.2% over the last century.

    In terms of what we know, these numbers are very similar. That does not mean that we should *not* regulate a known pollutant.

    The site you gave as a link contains a very interesting document that lays out the skepticism very well, I think. It shows quite clearly that there has been a rise in solar activity, but that the rise in tropospheric temperature has not been as consistent. This is far better proof for point, which is that the warming we have seen may be natural, than it is for an a priori statement one way or the other.

  7. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/10/2009 - 04:34 pm.

    Oh, and in case anyone is wondering why it’s better to be right than to be popular, just imagine what happens if the environmental movement is shown to have put all of its chips in on a very bad hand.

    Popular changes rapid sometimes – right doesn’t. I’m not one for popularity because I don’t see much point in keeping up with fashion. I’d much rather be right.

  8. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/10/2009 - 05:35 pm.

    Erik, I don’t know how you can be talking about the lack of scientific rigor among climate scientists. The only “evidence” of that is that you disagree with the conclusions. As I pointed out above, you cited something implying that scientists hadn’t considered solar activity, when in fact they have considered it at length. Your response to my link suggests that you had not seen it before, and that you interpret it as backing up your theory, when in fact it summarizes the consensus position – the a”Antithesis”.

    You need to stop arguing against a strawman. The only thing that you have demonstrated is your ignorance about climate science.

  9. Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/10/2009 - 10:26 pm.

    “Hugo Chavez is not a dictator, but rather a president who has been reelected over and over”

    Yes, Mr. Chavez faith in democracy is so deep he had term limits on his presidency removed – through the vote

    I’m glad we get most of our oil domestically and from Canada and Mexico. But we buy from Chavez, and that strengthens a guy who is not the populist or socialist he proclaims.

    Imagine – cutting the power of anti-western, anti-democratic oil autocracies by cutting our need for petro-based energy

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