EPA finds carbon pollution a serious danger to Americans’ health and welfare requiring regulation

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"EPA finds carbon pollution a serious danger to Americans’ health and welfare requiring regulation"

In a landmark finding for America and humanity, the EPA “issued a proposed finding Friday that greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare.”  The ruling sounds the death knell for new dirty coal plants and should apply some pressure on Congress to pass climate legislation.

Note: everything you could want to know about this finding — including the 133 page finding itself and the 171 “Technical support document” — can be found on EPA’s website here.

“This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama’s call for a low carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation,” said Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “This pollution problem has a solution – one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

http://www.labelident.com/images/product_images/info_images/1017_0_w76.jpg

As the EPA reports on its website:

EPA’s proposed endangerment finding is based on rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific analysis of six gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – that have been the subject of intensive analysis by scientists around the world. The science clearly shows that concentrations of these gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate.

The scientific analysis also confirms that climate change impacts human health in several ways. Findings from a recent EPA study titled “Assessment of the Impacts of Global Change on Regional U.S. Air Quality: A Synthesis of Climate Change Impacts on Ground-Level Ozone,” for example, suggest that climate change may lead to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone, a harmful pollutant. Additional impacts of climate change include, but are not limited to:

  • increased drought;
  • more heavy downpours and flooding;
  • more frequent and intense heat waves and wildfires;
  • greater sea level rise;
  • more intense storms; and
  • harm to water resources, agriculture, wildlife and ecosystems.

BACKGROUND AND IMPLICATIONS

On April 2, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were pollutants and that the EPA would have to regulate them if they were found to endanger public health and welfare.  Last month, EPA made its landmark finding: Global warming threatens public health and welfare.  Today, following White House approval, the EPA made it official.

As Wonk Room notes, “Welfare” is defined in the Clean Air Act as:

All language referring to effects on welfare includes, but is not limited to, effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, manmade materials, animals, wildlife, weather, visibility, and climate, damage to and deterioration of property, and hazards to transportation, as well as effects on economic values and on personal comfort and well-being, whether caused by transformation, conversion, or combination with other pollutants.

So for a science-based agency like EPA, this finding was a no-brainer given what happens if we don’t restrict greenhouse gas emissions (see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water “).  Of course, that didn’t stop the anti-science Bush White House from blocking such a finding for nearly two years.

What does this mean?

EPA will be able to develop and implement regulations to limit greenhouse gas pollution in major new sources to jumpstart the transition to a clean-energy economy.  As Center for American Progress senior fellow Robert Sussman “” now the EPA senior policy counsel “” explained in 2008:

The Clean Air Act, for example, imposes emission performance standards on new major sources of pollution and modifications of existing sources with emission increases over a set threshold. It should be possible to limit these standards to large power plants and other facilities that are significant emitters of CO2, and to exclude smaller sources, such as the hospitals, schools, stores, and apartment buildings of concern to the president. And it should be possible to implement a trading system for large sources that provides flexibility and reduces compliance costs. That is not to say, of course, that large sources would be off the hook from controlling their CO2 emissions “” why should they be? “” but it does mean that meaningless requirements with no climate change payoff can be avoided.

It was already unlikely that many new dirty coal plants would be built in the next decade — because of renewable energy requirements, a big energy efficiency push by Obama, and the increasing likelihood of domestic climate legislation.

This finding gives the EPA all the authority it needs to block the vast majority of those coal plants until carbon capture and storage becomes practical and affordable — which is probably a decade away and possibly two (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).  Fortunately, we have more than enough replacements (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions” and below).

Kudos to Lisa Jackson and Barack Obama.

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50 Responses to EPA finds carbon pollution a serious danger to Americans’ health and welfare requiring regulation

  1. Stuart says:

    Great news! This will be the “stick” part of carrot and stick that will push congress to act. Cue howls of outrage from the right in 3,2,1…

  2. MarkB says:

    Stuart,

    Too late! The howling has begun.

    http://www.foxnews.com/politics/first100days/2009/04/17/epa-takes-step-regulating-pollution-linked-climate-change/comments/

    I find a lot of these folks to be quite alarmist, wouldn’t you say?

    It’s amusing to watch from afar. Some select quotes:

    “if you actually believe this trash, why not slit your throat and end your CO2 output?…I think you’re either one of those who stand to gain from the fraud or you’re on their payroll.”

    “If you have a job, start saving all of your money, because if this is for real, layoffs will have to occur, because American employers cannot afford to pay off the EPA (oops, do I mean adopt the hardware or buy the carbon offsets required to stay in business). You won’t have to worry about stopping spending on items other than food or utilities, this is going to drive prices on all non-essentials unattainably high and you’ll have just enough to buy food. ”

    “How can mortal humans think they can control what God has created; fools!”

    “All this fear of global warming is just a hoax by politicians and some mentally ill pseudo scientists. ”

    “One problemm with the argument, is the fact that the CO2 is NOT man made and has always been on or in the plant Earth. “

  3. Rick C says:

    Do you hear that? That’s the sound of an industry in the beginning of its death throws giving up the ghost so the new and renewable one can take over.

  4. Neil says:

    I ♥ CO2

  5. paulm says:

    Lots of CEO’s breaking out in a cold sweat.

  6. Stuart says:

    Quite!

  7. David B. Benson says:

    :-)

  8. Jim Eager says:

    So many heads exploding at the same time.

    Awesome!

  9. hapa says:

    next step: a plan.

  10. Harrier says:

    The EPA can use this to stop the building of any new coal-fired power plants, no matter what legislation Congress ultimately passes.

  11. ecostew says:

    This is a related release from today awaiting moderation in the news of the day:

    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

    Climate Change Impacts on Regional Air Quality Report Just Released by EPA

    Contact: Roxanne Smith, 202-564-4355 / 4455 / smith.roxanne@epa.gov

    (Washington, D.C. – April 17, 2009) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a report on the potential impacts of climate change on regional U.S. air quality. The information contained in the report will enhance our ability as a nation to protect air quality and human health.

    The report, “Assessment of the Impacts of Global Change on Regional U.S. Air Quality: A Synthesis of Climate Change Impacts on Ground-Level Ozone,” concludes that there is a potential for climate change to make ozone pollution worse in some regions and that future ozone management decisions may need to account for the possible impacts of climate change.

    Climate change has the potential to produce increases in ground-level ozone in many regions. Ground-level ozone is formed in the presence of sunlight by a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are emitted from sources like motor vehicles and industrial facilities. Climate change also could increase the number of days with weather conditions conducive to forming ozone, potentially causing air quality alerts earlier in the spring and later in the fall.

    The Global Change Research Program in EPA’s Office of Research and Development led the development of the peer-reviewed report, which was done in partnership with EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. The report combines the results of new EPA-funded and existing scientific research and acknowledges that uncertainty remains over the specific regional patterns of climate change induced ground-level ozone changes.

  12. William says:

    I have a question for anyone. We could get to 5c of warming by 2100, but I still don’t quite understand how that will trigger catastrophic change when we have places that reach -20 degrees and places that reach 110+. Will it only be in the summertime that we experience severe warming? So Canada is warmed 5 degrees in the winter, won’t that just make it -15 degrees rather than -20. I am totally a climate activist I just want this cleared up because it’s bothering me.

  13. cougar_w says:

    So for the next 4 years at least, things can move forward. After that, maybe not so much.

    The best we can hope for over 4 years is that people will just get with the program and accept that this is a problem. That will make it harder for “any later administration” whatever the leaning to undo whatever can be accomplished.

    Four years is not much time, folks. Let’s hope it’s enough.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    William — Read Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees”, review here:
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article1480669.ece
    or Joe Romm’s own “Hell and High Water”.

  15. Dean says:

    I heard that the real impact of this is that without a Global Warming bill getting through Congress, the EPA sets the policy. If Congress is willing to pass a law, then in all likelihood it will include language to supercede EPA authority on this as the tradeoff. So those who thought they could just use The Senate’s super-majority rules to block any law are essentially handing that authority to the EPA and the dreaded BUREAUCRATS! ;)

    The question is now just what Obama will get (i.e. insist on) in trade for taking that authority away from the EPA’s Clean Air Act rule-making authority and process. I have read that it is considered a given that the EPA will not in the end use this authority to make rules, it will start to use it to force Congress to pass a law.

    But I’m a long way from DC, in case anybody else closer in has heard differently.

  16. Brewster says:

    William, I’ll mention a couple of simple cases. I’m sure others here will say I;ve oversimplifies, adn have even more devastating effects.

    The biggest difference is that the strongest warming will occur at the poles – roughly 3x what is experienced in the tropics.

    So, in the poles, instead of only 5 degrees warmer, it will be 15 degrees (rough figures) – that means that freezing temps will almost disappear in many traditionally winter months, leaving no time to build ice.

    Where I live in Canada, (Alberta) 5-8 degrees means that the mountains west of me will have a snowpack accretion time of more than 3 months less to pile up runoff water for our fields – since we already depend heavily on irrigation, that essentially means we will be unable to carry out large scale farming and ranching.

    So the actual temp isn’t as important as how it affects water distribution.

  17. ecostew says:

    Dean – I don’t agree, the Obama Administration is moving forward (with Congress leading if possible). I would expect to see CEQ issuing guidance under NEPA that AGW impacts must be considered in federal decision-making.

  18. ken levenson says:

    great news!

    but is it me, or does going after CO2 emissions for health risks related to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone sound kinda like going after mobsters for tax evasion?

    I’ll take it as a great first step – when’s the 100 first days up anyway? :)

    But it sure was a bummer to hear the announcement – and NOT hear about CO2s direct responsibility for the climate catastrophes headed our way….help…

  19. Dean says:

    Ecostew – We’ll see. The process for new rules is time-consuming. Nothing will come out of the EPA any time soon. But ti does change the ground rules – the ground is shifting.

    William – The average temperature increase in and of itself is not the problem. It’s the changes to other aspects of the broader climate that result from the temperature change that causes the problem. And remember – it was only 9 degrees F cooler at the depth of the last ice age. Small changes in average temp can bring huge changes as secondary effects. Changes in rainfall patterns, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels. They are all secondary effects, but at of primary importance.

  20. VinceP1974 says:

    I feel like I’m in some weird Sci-Fi movie where there is a plot to basically regress the United States to the early 1800s.

    We can’t drill for off-shore oil.. we can’t drill for domestic oil

    The oil we do use is supplied by our enemies who we fund with our purchases.

    Nuclear power is out of the question.

    We’re told Wind/Solar is the way… but then the Dems say can’t put the giant mirrors and mills in the desert. (Where should they go. Manhattan?) and the Dems dont want their view from Martha’s Vineyard destroyed by ocean windmills.

    And I really question the sanity of anyone who thinks wind/solar is a dependable primary source of energy on a national scale.

    Coal is evil.

    BUT They’re going to create MILLIONS of green jobs.

    How? Are millions of people suddenly becoming engineers and physicists.

    So there is really no outlook for any substntial increase in the production of energy or extraction of resources needed for energy.

    Meanwhile, you know the Dems are going to take a giant eraser to the southern border, continuing the flood of immigrants.

    And now Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant So everyone is a polluter.

    And they claim to be science-based and rational.

    It’s insane.

  21. Harrier says:

    Vince: you’ll thank us later. Trust me.

    Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you won’t even notice. Which will in itself be a sign of success.

  22. ecostew says:

    Dean,

    Just watch what happens!

  23. Phillip Huggan says:

    R U sure?? Canada’s Prime Minister downplayed a very similiar report last year issued by Health Canada: http://www.nupge.ca/news_2008/n28jy08b.htm

    You’re saying the scientists that now own this platform in your country are to be believed over the right-wing (not hockey) lobbyists that own this portfolio in mine? My mainstream media would disagree with you very strongly. I’m glad to see someone on this continent addressing Canadian health issues here. :)

  24. William says:

    Thanks for the info guys. That helps a lot, I guess I have to put my faith in the experts even though it still doesn’t completely make sense that 3-6 degrees C increase is going to cause catastrophe. I wonder about the validity of Lynas’s 6 degrees article and I don’t understand how Dr. Romm gets 15 F warming in US by 2100 when the map of temperature increase in the IPCC fourth assessment indicates a rise of 7 degrees F by 2090-2099. I totally get what Brewster said about less build-up time for ice.

    [JR: The latest science says 10 to 15 F for much of U.S. by 2100 That map you refer to is not of the emissions path we're now on.]

  25. John Hollenberg says:

    William,

    The IPCC report is from 2007, and stopped accepting new info 1-2 years earlier. For more recent info, see for example:

    http://climateprogress.org/2009/02/23/mit-doubles-global-warming-projections/

  26. paulm says:

    William remember 1998?

  27. ecostew says:

    I predict CEQ will be issuing NEPA guidance on AGW assessment.

    http://www.eenews.net/public/Greenwire/2009/03/23/4

  28. Craig says:

    Dean, I’m not sure the EPA finding improves Obama’s tactical advantage. Let’s say the Waxman-Markey bill (or a similar piece of legislation) starts moving through Congress. And let’s say the Obama administration threatens to have the EPA regulate coal fired plants unless Congress passes the bill. But that might be exactly what leaders like Boehner are hoping will happen.

    After all, EPA regulation will raise energy prices for consumers. But the EPA won’t sell pollution allowances that can be returned to taxpayers in the form of a credit or dividend to offset those higher prices. Which means angry taxpayers and angry voters. Which would seem to play right into GOP leader’s hands.

    Couldn’t the GOP call his bluff?

    [JR: This analysis is simply wrong. I see a lot of confusion on this subject. I will have to write another post.]

  29. Gail says:

    Somebody more clever than I remarked that even people who believe the climate is changing don’t believe it is going to happen anywhere near them.

    Here if anyone is interested are the latest pictures of climate change damage in my back yard. As far as I can ascertain, not being a scientist, New Jersey and much of the Eastern US is getting a double whammy – less precipitation (latest figures, the is the driest year to date EVER in NJ) and overall warming so that trees and shrubs do not go dormant and then suffer damage during severe cold snaps.

    http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=14135&id=1666320074

    This report gets it right but still neglects the Eastern US:

    http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1672692/forest_carbon_sinks_threatened_by_global_warming/index dot html?source=r_science

    Why is this important?

    Because, Washington DC is in the Eastern US and the people who work in the government need to know their own children are going to grow up in a world without trees, apple juice, maple syrup, and birds.

  30. Dean says:

    Ecostew – The newspaper today said that Obama would prefer to regulate greenhouse gases through Congress rather than the EPA. The reason it gave is that EPA regs would be more subject to lawsuits than an act of Congress. However, the reason given by Craig might be a good reason as well. The GOP might want to call that bluff and play it that way, but I doubt that business interests will, since they would be caught in the middle to the degree that the regs affect large-scale emitters. Business has been coming around to the need to take action, so that will be going up against the hard-core partisanship that Republicans are playing on this issue. And it is not a homerun for Republicans. Obama could say that he wants to refund the increases to voters, but Republicans won’t let him. Voters currently trust him far more than the R’s in Congress.

  31. MarkB says:

    William,

    Another way of looking at it is that approximately 6 degrees C in the global mean temperature separates current conditions from that of an ice age, which put areas of the U.S. under a mile of ice and rendered much of the land uninhabitable. So a change of a few degrees is very significant. Such a change in the other direction would result in different catastrophic consequences.

  32. Although action by Congress would be good, having this trump card in reserve is even better. Now, what price for a ton of CO2?

  33. dhogaza says:

    William, also remember that the 3-6C global temperature change is for the entire globe, i.e. including that vast part of it which lies over the oceans and which will warm less than land. Joe’s 15F for the US reflects the fact that the continents will warm more than the global average (and the air over the oceans, less).

  34. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi William –

    One of the things to look for is vastly increased wildfires. This paper in Science shows a sixfold increase in wildfires with only a less than one degree C rise in average temperature. If a one degree rise in temperature increases wildfires sixfold, what would a 2 degree C rise in temperature mean? An increase in wildfires by thirty-six times? How about a 3 degree C rise in temperature? Would this equal an increase in wildfires by 216 times?

    Google “science wildfires 2005 western” and click on the second entry in the list (this site doesn’t seem to like this url for some reason).

    And these wildfires also dump carbon into the atmosphere – a positive feedback effect which itself tends to make global warming worse. Chris Field, one of the IPCC group leaders, recently said on Democracy Now! that these positive feedback events could combine into a vicious cycle that could do everything from igniting tropical forest to melting the arctic tundra. He notes that the tropical forests alone could release as much carbon as the entire industrial revolution, in huge firestorm wildfires, by 2100.

    Increases in wildfires are just one of the many potential positive feedback effects that could combine into a vicious cycle of ecological collapses. After a while, an ecological disaster known as a methane catastrophe could result, which could send the climate system spinning out of control.

    That’s what many of us are worried about. The earth’s climate is a self-regulating system, which life regulates to keep balanced in its current condition far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Many of us are worried that this self-regulating system, partially regulated by life itself, could be disrupted by the extremely rapid forcing we are applying to it. If the earth’s atmosphere returns to thermodynamic equilibrium, the end result could resemble the surface of Venus, with sulfuric acid rain and temperatures of hundreds of degrees C.

  35. William says:

    Ok great stuff, it’s starting to make sense now. It’s incredible that such a (seemingly) minor change in mean temp can have such significant consequences, I’d love to see an in-depth piece about the particulars of how that is when summer/winter temps vary by 50 degrees in most parts of the world.

  36. paulm says:

    William, remember 1998?

    This will be a mild to average kinda year in the near future.

    Climate of 1998 Annual Review
    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/1998/ann/ann98.html

  37. Leland Palmer says:

    What the paper in Science showed was that with a minor change in average temperature, the fire season increased by many days, in the Western U.S., and moisture conditions were much lower, leading to a very large increase in fires.

    The Bush administration knew this, of course, having to pay the budgets for the fire crews.

    Watch the 60 Minutes video from a few years ago:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3389657n

  38. William says:

    Leland, the 60 minutes video is excellent, thank you so much for linking that. Joe, I know you don’t generally link videos on the blog, but you may want to consider this one. Those firefighters are true heroes btw.

  39. Phillip Huggan says:

    China GDP increased more than 13x between 1990 and 2007: http://www.chinability.com/GDP.htm
    Future developing world growth rate estimates are all over the charts, but I bet IPCC is still using slow growth rate estimates to extrapolate India, Indonesia, Philippines, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Eastern China, emissions, despite the Chinese evidence of faster “development”. A cooling 2008 German ocean model until it flips over to a warming forcing in the 2020s, combined with explosive emissions growth and dumb rich people (fossils) in government at the start of this century is the political nightmare scenario.
    It appears our climate may be just as reflexive as is our economy. Boomers will do all they can to squeeze out every last drop out of coal and oil to keep palliative medical costs low. Who will stand up for the future?

  40. Susan says:

    William et al,

    While focusing on drought, another side of the picture is floods. There has been a large increase in the amount of rain falling in wet places over a short time. Any time more than a couple of inches falls in 24 hours, you have floods, and this is becoming extremely common.

    Yet another is species migration. We are losing a lot of forests to bugs. Some of this is about resistance, and there are probably a host of other factors, but climate change is skewing the overall picture.

    Also, it is now looking like the Himilayas, Andes, Sierras, and other mountain glaciers will melt, some of them as early as 2020 (PBS Now just covered this). At that point, billions of people will have a water supply problem.

    There is also socioeconomic conflicts. Starving people will do a lot to feed their children.

    The Punjab in India is now suffering from western-style agriculture, once a boon, as they have to dig deeper and deeper for water, with associated salinization.

    I could go on …

  41. Craig says:

    Dean, I think “bluff” was a poor word choice on my part. It implies that Obama might back entirely away from having the EPA regulate greenhouse gases if more comprehensive legislation is not passed in Congress. It’s probably not an either/or thing. Plus, his administration understands the gravity of climate change and isn’t that reckless.

    You bring up a good point about business leaders wanting to avoid unwieldy EPA regulations and how they might pressure GOP pols to help pass a climate/energy bill that industry has a share in writing.

    Joe, thanks for forcing me to check my reasoning on this one. After reading a post by Nina Mendelson in the NY Times (http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/19/the-epa-puts-on-the-heat/) the issue is somewhat clearer. The way I understand it, the EPA starts using its new regulatory might to lay the tracks until a Waxman like bill is passed. And after all, no matter the method, GOP leaders are going to try and pound the Dems with the “light switch tax” club.

  42. Susan says:

    Fastest Glacier:
    “A glacier moving way too fast reveals how unpredictable the effects of global warming can be.”
    and lots of other good stuff:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3210/03.html

    “On Thin Ice”, NOW, PBS:
    http://wwd.wgbh.org/tv/program/now-pbs/thin-ice

    several other related features here:
    http://www.pbs.org/now/

  43. ecostew says:

    Craig,

    Simply put – Obama is committed to mitigating AGW and securing our energy security and we will move forward – one can choose to play or not.

  44. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — $250 per tonne of CO2 emitted. :|

  45. ecostew says:

    David – a number like this not in context is very unproductive.

  46. David B. Benson says:

    ecostew — Sorry, Wilmot asked for a price on CO2 emissions (obviously). So I gave him one; happens to be what I think it costs to remove the carbon, (12/44)x250 = $68 per tonne of carbon.

  47. ecostew says:

    Nice you think so – where is the science?

  48. TedN5 says:

    I submitted this comment under the topic of a new website design but it is also pertinent here:

    “Hell and High Water” was the best and most comprehensive book I have read on the issues and this site is the most politically savy of any climate change site that I am aware of. Keep up the great work!

    The one thing I would suggest is an easily identifiable way to email the editor with questions and suggestions. Currently I am looking for your recommendations on making comments to the EPA on their recent proposed finding. Are numbers in support important? Are group comments more important than individual ones? Should the comments be comprehensive given the fact that the EPA has all the relevant scientific papers? Would it be better to submit written comments or sign up for one of the live sessions or both? What other recommendations do you have for comment preparation?

    How about it? Anyone else want to chime in on the need for and the preparation of comments on the EPA’s proposed finding?

  49. JT says:

    What a crock! Plants breathe carbon dioxide.

  50. And people drink water. So obviously it is not possible for a person to be immersed in too much water. I mean, it is just too obvious to bear mentioning that, since water is a necessity for human life, that it is clearly a logical impossibility for a person to actually drown. I mean, surely everyone just “knows” this, right?