Our guest blogger is Robert M. Sussman, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and former Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
President Bush and his administration are trying to block the application of existing environmental laws to the problem of climate change, claiming that a “regulatory train wreck” is on the horizon because “unelected regulators and judges” are taking action. Bush explained last week:
Some courts are taking laws written more than 30 years ago — to primarily address local and regional environmental effects — and applying them to global climate change. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate. For example, under a Supreme Court decision last year, the Clean Air Act could be applied to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. This would automatically trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act of greenhouse gases all across our economy — leading to what Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell last week called, “a glorious mess.”
The truth is that our environmental laws were not written to be static. They are flexible tools to address unanticipated or emerging problems that science identifies over time.
The Clean Air Act is a case in point, as the Supreme Court’s Massachusetts v EPA decision illustrates. The administration argued that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not “air pollutants” under the Act, but the Court rejected this position. It instead concluded that the Act’s definition of pollutant “embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe,” and that the Act’s protections against the dangers of air pollution to “public health or welfare” include a wide range of concerns, including effects on climate and weather that can harm people and ecosystems.
Even more far-fetched is the president’s belief that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was not intended to cover global warming — despite being designed to recognize the “profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment.” The core of NEPA is the requirement that agencies prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for all “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” It’s simply not credible to argue that climate change — alone among environmental concerns — does not qualify.
As for the Endangered Species Act, its goal is to protect plant or animal species verging on extinction so that they do not disappear entirely. Why these species are endangered is irrelevant to compliance with the law. Is President Bush suggesting that because the polar bear population is at risk from reduced Arctic ice floes resulting from global warming, it is entitled to less protection under the Act than bald eagles, whose habitat was destroyed by over-development? Clearly, this would make no sense.
Our priority at this juncture should be exploring how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and moderate global warming before we run out of time to take meaningful action. We should use every tool at our disposal. Sensibly implemented, existing laws enable us to get started reducing emissions while Congress debates a more comprehensive and complicated approach. Raising a false alarm about existing laws — without any analysis to back it up — is a diversionary tactic that we can ill afford.
UPDATE: Warming Law notes that the Washington Post editorial board bought into Bush’s “train wreck” argument.