EPA's CO2 Finding: Putting a Gun to Congress's Head

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Frans Lanting / Corbis

Back in 1973, National Lampoon ran a satirical cover image of a very cute, very worried-looking puppy with a gun pointed at its head. The headline read "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog" — motivation by emotional blackmail, taken to its absurdist extreme.

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) landmark decision on Friday to set in motion the process of regulating greenhouse gases had a little bit of the sardonically threatening spirit of that magazine cover. Concluding a scientific review initially ordered by a two-year-old Supreme Court case, the EPA issued its long-awaited "endangerment finding," formally declaring that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases are pollutants that threaten public health and welfare. Under the Clean Air Act, that finding means that the EPA has a responsibility to address the damage caused by greenhouse gases, possibly through direct regulation of CO2 — just as it regulates other air pollutants, like acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)

"The finding confirms that greenhouse-gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. "Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation."

That's where the endangered puppy comes in. As momentous as the EPA's decision was — the finding stated "in both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem" — no one actually wants the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Not even Jackson or Obama, both of whom have repeatedly stated that they would much prefer Congress to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions directly, most likely through a cap-and-trade program. Most environmentalists feel the same way. The problem is getting cap-and-trade passed in Congress; most Republicans are against it on the grounds that it might hurt the economy by raising energy prices in the short term, and many Democrats from states with lots of polluting coal plants feel similarly.

So the possibility that in the face of congressional inaction the EPA might take matters into its own hands and directly regulate greenhouse gases can be seen as a not so subtle threat. Either act on your own, or let an EPA bureaucrat do it for you. Said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch: "If business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce continue to oppose congressional action, they ought to ask themselves, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood, Do you feel lucky?" (See pictures of the world's most polluted places.)

The EPA's move on Friday was characterized by the top global warming analyst for the National Wildlife Federation as the "single largest step the Federal Government had taken to fight climate change." But there is still a long way to go before the agency may undertake what would be the most far-reaching environmental regulation in U.S. history. The EPA's finding triggers a 60-day public-comment period before any proposed regulations could be announced, and most observers expect it would take months, if not years, for the EPA to produce rules that could control the 7.3 billion metric tons of CO2 the U.S. produces, from sources that range from giant power plants to planes and cars. The initial regulations would likely center on emissions from motor vehicles — the cause behind the 2007 Supreme Court case that originally spurred the endangerment finding. (In the case, Massachusetts v. EPA, the court found that the EPA had a responsibility to regulate carbon from cars — despite arguments to the contrary by the George W. Bush–era agency.)

Regardless of how long it takes, the mere possibility of EPA action at least signals to the rest of the world that the U.S., after years of lagging, is finally moving to address global warming on a federal level. That could bear fruit at the U.N. climate-change summit at the end of the year. "Clearly, this demonstrates the U.S. is getting to work on climate change," says Emily Figdor, the federal global-warming program director for Environment America.

Not every observer believes the implicit threat of EPA regulation will be enough to force cap-and-trade opponents to fall in line. After all, the main criticism of cap-and-trade is that it may result in a rise in energy prices as carbon becomes more expensive (indeed, making fossil fuels more costly relative to clean renewable fuels is the point). Advocates argue that new green jobs created by acting on climate change will more than offset the price of cap-and-trade and that, in any case, the long-term cost of delaying on global warming will be far worse. But regulating CO2 would presumably also cause energy prices to rise — and if cap-and-trade proves unpopular in Congress, EPA regulation could end up a political loser for the Obama Administration as well. "Republicans would love for Democrats to regulate carbon and raise energy prices," says Michael Shellenberger, a political strategist and president of the Breakthrough Institute, a maverick green group. "The threat of regulating carbon is actually a suicide threat."

In truth, by any reasonable definition, the EPA has the right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The scientific case is clear: global warming is dangerous, and man-made greenhouse gases cause global warming; ergo, those gases are pollutants that must be dealt with. But carbon is so global, so embedded in every aspect of modern life that it needs to be managed by the popularly elected governmental body meant to represent us all: Congress. "This is an enormous shift, and we need to get together as a nation to deal with it," says Maggie Fox, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection. "That's what a democracy is about."

It will be messy, it will be inefficient, and, for many greens, it will be maddening, but Congress is the right place to hash out our response to global warming. The very real and very scary threat of a warming world — which might as well be a gun pointed at our collective head — will have to be enough to motivate them.

See pictures of the effects of global warming.

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