EPA says greenhouse gases ‘endanger’ health

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a landmark ruling today. It said that “greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution … The greenhouse gases that are responsible for it endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.”

Environmental policymakers have been waiting to see whether the Obama administration would issue such an “endangerment” ruling for greenhouse gases. Many public interest groups had asked the Bush administration to do so. And it refused. The Bush administration also prohibited individual states from taking action, arguing that if the feds couldn’t justify such a ruling, the states couldn’t either.

In announcing the endangerment finding today, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson sets in motion steps that could eventually force states to ratchet down their emissions. The new proposal cites not only carbon dioxide as a potential endangering greenhouse gas but also methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.

Bolstering her agency’s concern over these pollutants’ ability to exacerbate pollution — especially ozone — are additional national security concerns, Jackson said. She noted that scientific analyses find that the climate change apparently being driven by rising greenhouse gas emissions is likely contributing to droughts, flooding, heat waves, wildfires, sea level rise and more around the globe.

In 2007, 11 retired U.S. generals and admirals endorsed a report from the Center for a New American Security, she said. That report argued that climate change “presents significant national security challenges for the United States.” As the Earth’s climate warms, many countries risk political unrest as they try to cope with damaging affects on natural resources, from diminished water and forest cover to trouble maintaining crops and livestock. Such changes risk triggering mass migrations of people from unstable regions to more stable nations, Jackson said. Presumably, she was referring to the United States and Europe, although she did not mention either explicitly.

In a prepared statement, EPA announced, “Today’s proposed finding does not include any proposed regulations. Before taking any steps to reduce greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, EPA would conduct an appropriate process and consider stakeholder input. Notwithstanding this required regulatory process, both President Obama and Administrator Jackson have repeatedly indicated their preference for comprehensive legislation to address this issue and create the framework for a clean energy economy.”

For now, the public and those who might be affected by greenhouse-gas limits have 60 days to weigh in on the new endangerment ruling.

As one might expect, Jackson’s pronouncement was music to the ears of some and was interpreted by others as potential grounds for war.

For instance, Martin Hayden, vice president of policy and legislation with Earthjustice, said: “This is a victory for the Clean Air Act.” With this pronouncement, the new administration signals “a turn toward a clean energy future.” (Earthjustice describes itself as a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to “strengthening environmental laws” and working to improve the health of the environment.)

Some lawmakers offered similar plaudits. For instance, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) maintains that “today’s announcement is long overdue and marks the EPA’s first real response to the April 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which confirmed that greenhouses gases should be regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.” Carper is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.

His colleague John Kerry (D-Mass.) said much the same thing: “The science is screaming at us, and it’s time for Congress to act. I applaud the EPA for conducting an open, comprehensive review of these critical environmental issues and look forward to working with my colleagues and the administration to enact a strong response to one of the most serious threats facing our nation and the world. Congress must seize the opportunity to swiftly pass a strong, comprehensive climate bill that enables America to lead the world by example.” Kerry is the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As one of his first tasks in that capacity, he convened a hearing on the potential global economic and security threats posed by climate change.

Meanwhile, House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) charged that today’s decision “is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to enact a national energy tax…The Administration is abusing the regulatory process to establish this tax because it knows there are not enough votes in Congress to force Americans to pay it…. That’s why Republicans oppose this tax.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues that the new EPA endangerment ruling could lead to regulation of greenhouse gas emissions that would “jeopardize construction projects and limit the nation’s domestic energy production.” USCC is the world’s largest business federation representing more than 3 million businesses and organizations.

Today’s EPA ruling was made in reference to motor-vehicle provisions of the Clean Air Act and presumably could lead to new limits on tailpipe emissions. However, “a final endangerment finding will surely spur litigation to shoehorn all emitters, not just motor vehicles, into a wide range of Clean Air Act programs,” said Bill Kovacs, vice president for Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs with USCC. If that happens, he says, it could “kill economic growth and jobs.”

That sounds like hyperbole. It may hurt economic growth but I suspect it won’t “kill” it, or put even more people out of work. It may move jobs around, but climate protection could become a real engine of growth for nations that embrace it enthusiastically.

There’s no question that reigning in greenhouse gas emissions will be costly. Dealing with the repercussions of not doing so, however, could be even more costly. Not today, but two to 20 years from now.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking out at the Mississippi River as it wends its way through New Orleans. We all know what happened when local and federal officials decided it was too expensive to shore up levees and prepare contingency plans for dealing with category 5 hurricane damage in southern Louisiana. And we all know the costs in lives, dollars and still-disrupted communities that resulted when Katrina and Rita sent a double-whammy of hurricane surge waters cascading throughout this and neighboring regions.

I worry that every year we don’t address the mess we’re making of our air, waters and soils, the more costly the cleanup or contingency programs will ultimately become. Let’s work together to develop contingency and cleanup plans that help us cut our losses before they become truly catastrophic.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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