GOP Ignores Danger of Global Warming


Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, a case that "could be one of the court's most important ever on the environment." The case emerged in 2003 after the EPA rejected a petition calling for the federal government to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases -- most notably, carbon dioxide.

The EPA's general counsel argued in a memo that "[carbon dioxide] and other [greenhouse gases], as such, are not air pollutants," and "substantial scientific uncertainty" still exists about the effects of carbon dioxide on the environment. The statement meant the Bush administration would not have to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld this view. (The Washington Post would later report that "two of the jurists who helped decide the case" had "attended a six-day global warming seminar ... sponsored by a free-market foundation and featuring presentations from companies with a clear financial interest in limiting regulation.")

Twelve states, three major cities, and several environmental groups appealed the decision, arguing the case "goes to the heart of the EPA's statutory responsibilities to deal with the most pressing environmental problem of our time."

Ultimately, the Supreme Court's ruling "could determine how the nation addresses global warming." Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) is optimistic about the court's decision. "It is encouraging that the high court feels this case needs to be reviewed," said Jeffords, a supporter of carbon dioxide regulation. "It is high time to stop relying on technicalities and finger pointing to avoid action on climate change."

Industry is polluting science

In 1999, President Bush called carbon dioxide "one of four main pollutants" that needed "mandatory reduction targets for emissions." But he changed his position in a 2003 letter that claimed it "is not a 'pollutant' under the Clean Air Act." (Not surprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute agrees: "Fundamentally, we don't think carbon dioxide is a pollutant.")

Meanwhile, the EPA's own website defines carbon dioxide as "Industrial Air Pollution" that contributes to "global climate change." Jennifer Bradley and Timothy Dowling, who have co-written an amicus brief for the case, argue the "EPA's statutory justification depends on a rather tortured reading of the Clean Air Act [PDF]." First, the Act says the EPA must regulate any "air pollutant" that "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." The statute defines "air pollutant" broadly as "substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air." (No doubt carbon dioxide emissions fit within this broad definition.)

Also, the Act explicitly refers to CO2 as a pollutant when it states "pollution prevention" should be carried out with "improvements in nonregulatory strategies and technologies for preventing or reducing multiple air pollutants, including ... carbon dioxide." Second, Bradley and Dowling argue, the "Clean Air Act does not allow the EPA to weigh policy considerations [PDF] in deciding whether to regulate." (For example, the EPA did so in 2003 when they "questioned the wisdom of a 'piecemeal' approach to greenhouse gases.") "Policy considerations such as the costs and benefits of regulation or the existence of alternative methods more to the current administration's liking," they write, "are far outside those statutory boundaries."

New studies strengthen the case for action

Several recent studies demonstrate both humanity's impact on climate change and the effects these changes have on the environment. The National Academy of Sciences, a "private organization chartered by Congress to advise the government of scientific matters," found in their comprehensive study of climate change data that "recent warmth is unprecedented for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia."

More importantly, the study "supports the conclusion that human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming." The National Center for Atmospheric Research revealed one of the consequences of our actions: stronger hurricane activity.

"Global warming accounted for around half of the extra hurricane-fueling warmth in the waters of the tropical North Atlantic in 2005, while natural cycles were only a minor factor," the report found." The study contradicts recent claims that natural cycles are responsible for the upturn in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995. It also adds support to the premise that hurricane seasons will become more active as global temperatures rise." Finally, researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Kansas recently reported that Greenland's glaciers "are melting twice as fast as they were five years ago." If Greenland's ice sheet thaws, scientists predict that sea levels could rise 21 feet and "swamp the world's coastal cities, home to a billion people."

The Right manufactures the debate about global warming

"There is a debate over whether [climate change is] manmade or naturally caused," Bush said yesterday. Yet among scientists, the debate has long been over. Rather than argue the science, the right has resorted to manufacturing scientific doubt where there is none. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a column from a prominent climate skeptic that argued, "There Is No 'Consensus' On Global Warming."

Commentators on CNBC picked up on the theme later in the day, saying, "There is not scientific consensus." (One network anchor said there is no way "puny, gnawing little humans" could change the climate in "70 years.") The right wants the public to ignore scientific research that find "human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming," and instead believe that we should wait for more research before we take action.

The moral imperative

"If only the U.S. administration could flip from denial to acceptance, it could save the world," said John Houghton, a former senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "If the Americans continue to do nothing, then we have a big problem -- therefore they must do something."

Despite the best efforts from the right, the American public does want the government to act. A CBS News poll found that 66 percent of Americans think global warming is impacting us now, and in a Gallup poll conducted in March, 75 percent of Americans favored "mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases."

Despite campaign promises to the contrary, Bush opposes mandatory reductions. Instead, he favors "voluntary measures" that "have yet to deliver promised results."

Others are filling the leadership void. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) released the Safe Climate Act last week that aims to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. (The International Climate Change Taskforce recommended this target in a report [PDF] sponsored by the Center for American Progress.) The bill sets out emission goals "through a flexible economy-wide cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, along with measures to advance technology and reduce emissions through renewable energy, energy efficiency, and cleaner cars."

And as concern over the impacts of climate change increase, there is a growing consensus that reducing carbon emissions may no longer be a sufficient response to the impending reality of global warming, creating greater need for attention to how we will manage the potentially disastrous impacts of increased warming that may already be upon us. American Progress has called for a policy of global warming preparedness to addresses likely impacts and accompany immediate action on reducing emissions.

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