Supreme Court, the EPA, Dubya, and Climate Change

Climate change is a mess.

Not just because of the environmental impact, but because of its politicization. We can’t even get the name right.

Environmentalists want to call it Global Warming. Industrialists want to call it bogus. The facts are that the climate is changing and we are likely responsible.

I’ve attended the last two California Climate Change Research Conferences as well as last year’s U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) Workshop on Climate Science in Support of Decision Making. All three were chock full of hard, scientific evidence from dozens and dozens of research institutions around the world. The climate is changing, but it isn’t necessarily warming. In some places, it is cooling, like in the orange belt on the eastern coast of the US where the frost line has steadily moved southward, shrinking the climate for growing oranges in that area. For Savannah, Georgia, climate change means a global cooling and no more orange groves.

The NYT today brings us a story that highlights both the political tomfoolery around this topic as well as a ray of hope that we might see some honest traction on the issue this year. The Supreme Court will be hearing a case brought by twelve states against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to do its job regulating greenhouse gases. The case seems pretty straightforward. The Bush Administration’s stance is anything but:

A group of 12 states, including New York and Massachusetts, is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to properly do its job. These states, backed by environmental groups and scientists, say that the Clean Air Act requires the E.P.A. to impose limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by new cars. These gases are a major contributor to the “greenhouse effect” that is dangerously heating up the planet.

The Bush administration insists that the E.P.A. does not have the power to limit these gases. It argues that they are not “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act. Alternatively, it contends that the court should dismiss the case because the states do not have “standing,” since they cannot show that they will be specifically harmed by the agency’s failure to regulate greenhouse gases.

A plain reading of the Clean Air Act shows that the states are right. The act says that the E.P.A. “shall” set standards for “any air pollutant” that in its judgment causes or contributes to air pollution that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” The word “welfare,” the law says, includes “climate” and “weather.” The E.P.A. makes an array of specious arguments about why the act does not mean what it expressly says. But it has no right to refuse to do what Congress said it “shall” do.

What’s ridiculous is that the EPA is the agency that should be addressing this problem. How they address it, what solutions they use, and any regulations they enact are policy decisions. Those decisions will need to be worked out in the time honored way. But to date, the EPA has simply denied that it has the authority to do so, rather than accept its authority and craft a series of regulations.

Indeed, they could craft a series of regulations that suck, that do little or nothing to help the real problem while letting entrenched interests get away with continued, unsustainably harmful emissions. But they haven’t even done that. Instead, they have embraced the Bush culture of denial and simply refused to do their job.

I, for one, hope the states prevail in the case. I’d like to see some arm of the federal government take up the issue of finding a solution to climate change that fits with our national interests, rather than blindly denying the need to do anything.

Defining a working solution will be a challenging problem, quite possibly the defining problem of the 21st century. It’s time to start figuring it out.

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