EPA's climatic victory

Our view: Appeals court ruling allows agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in a big win for climate change science — and public health

June 27, 2012

Tuesday's victory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal appeals court in the District of Columbia has once again demonstrated that the science of climate change, while famously "inconvenient," is virtually impossible for fair and reasonable people to deny.

In upholding the agency's right to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, under a handful of cases, the three-judge panel recognized climate change as the legitimate threat to public health and safety that it is, and that the Clean Air Act gives the agency appropriate authority to regulate it. This shouldn't have come as much surprise to opponents, as the decision is in line with the Supreme Court's 2007 decision affirming the EPA had that power.

It would be nice, of course, if we lived in a world where coal and other fossil fuels could be burned without regard to the pollution they emit, but that's not real life. Unfortunately, the longer the U.S. and other developed countries wait to address climate change, the less chance they can do much about it.

We would be sympathetic to polluters' complaints that climate change should be addressed by Congress and not by a regulatory agency if those same opponents had not worked so hard to thwart that very effort two years ago. They now must reap what they sowed: a less political and more science-driven regulatory process.

The court's decision means the EPA can move forward with clean car standards that are, incidentally, already supported by industry and labor, and the issuance of restrictive permits to power plants and other major industrial polluters.

There are, of course, winners and losers in this transition. Coal-producing states like West Virginia will be hurt economically as they gradually lose a market for their product. But until power plants and other major users of coal develop a reliable and economical method to capture carbon emissions (or at least offset them), this is unavoidable.

Yet that setback for coal is a potential boon for alternative sources of energy. Much of the attention now will be on generating power from natural gas, which is less harmful to the environment (though hardly carbon-free), and on improving biofuels, solar and wind technologies.

Conservatives can grouse all they want that the transition will inevitably cause consumer prices to rise. Coal was relatively cheap compared to the alternatives — if the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions are not factored into its price. Mitt Romney is already running ads in critical states like Ohio attacking the EPA, always a favorite Republican whipping boy, and promising to strip the agency of its authority to regulate carbon.

But Mr. Romney may also find himself politically vulnerable on this issue. He has admitted in the past that the earth's climate is changing, that humans are contributing to the problem and that he favored reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet his refusal to endorse the EPA's regulatory role would seem to put him in a political no-man's land of recognizing that global warming is real and distressing but declining to do anything worthwhile about it.

Even with the mountain of evidence supporting the reality of climate change and now a growing number of court opinions endorsing it, it's hard to believe a politically gridlocked Congress is capable of taking appropriate action on its own. Thus, the EPA represents the best hope for responsible behavior — and for the U.S. to set an example for countries that have been similarly reluctant to embrace reforms.

This week's ruling may yet be appealed to the Supreme Court, but experts say there's little chance of reversal there, particularly given the high court's related 2007 decision and the slam-dunk nature of the appeals court's unanimous findings. Opponents would be better served putting their energy where it should have been in the first place — in developing methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

From Western fires and Southern flooding to severe weather, threatened animal and plant species and melting ice caps, the impact of global warming is real and distressing. A recent study from the U.S. Geological Survey suggests the East Coast is a "hot spot," as sea levels are rising more rapidly than previously thought. All of which strongly suggests it's time Washington stopped bickering over global warming and started supporting the EPA's efforts.

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