Pushing for Action on Climate Change

Supreme Court case decision could force the Bush administration to take required action to curb global warming.

I told you before I’m not a scientist,” said Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at yesterday’s landmark hearing on global warming. “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”

But the federal government has no choice but to deal with global warming, as Massachusetts Attorney General James Milkey persuasively argued yesterday. The question is not “when is the predicted cataclysm?,” as Justice Scalia asked yesterday, but rather how can we stop the dangerous effects of climate change that are already occurring today?

The result of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency will decide whether the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobile tailpipes.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia are calling on the EPA and the Bush administration to take this necessary measure to begin curbing the dangerous emissions that cause global warming. Yet the EPA maintains that “greenhouse gases are not air pollutants, and therefore are not subject to government regulation.”

The Clean Air Act states that the EPA is required to set emissions standards for “any air pollutant” from motor vehicles or motor vehicle engines “which in his judgment cause or contribute to air pollution.”

The Clinton administration previously determined that auto emissions and other greenhouse gasses do fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction because of their role in exacerbating global warming. The EPA at that time concluded that it would regulate carbon dioxide if it determined that it caused “adverse effects on public health, welfare, or the environment.” Yet the EPA under the Bush administration now says that it has no power over automobile emissions, and even “if it had the power, it wouldn’t use it.”

Consensus in the scientific community is overwhelming: automobile emissions undoubtedly add significantly to the very real danger of global warming. The Earth’s temperature has already increased 1.5°F degrees over the last century, leading to rising sea levels, a decrease in snow coverage, the retreat of glaciers and sea ice, and an increase of droughts. Scientists also predict that without intervention, Earth will near a two degree Fahrenheit global temperature increase within the next 25 years, leading to decreased crop yields, water shortages, and diminished economic growth in developing countries.

The international community has proven its commitment to reducing global warming with the Kyoto Protocol and numerous other decisions; it is time for the United States to do the same. As the leading producer of greenhouse gas emissions, the United States must take a leading role in developing a global plan for taking action on climate change and utilizing new technologies that will decrease emissions.

If the Supreme Court’s decision forces the Bush administration to take action to curb global warming, setting automobile emissions standards should become part of a larger plan for decreasing America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Center for American Progress has proposed that the United States establish a national cap-and-trade program in order to reach the long-term goal of preventing the global average temperature from rising more than 3.6°F degrees above pre-industrial levels. The program should include:

  • The immediate creation of a national cap on emissions and a market for trading credits.
  • Economy-wide implementation that protects early adopters, and provides opportunities for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and agriculture and forestry industries to participate.
  • Potential for integration into international carbon credit trading markets in the future.
  • Reinvigorated fuel economy standards, which could revive what was achieved between 1975 and 1988—a 70 percent increase in fuel efficiency for new cars and trucks.

Americans overwhelmingly support initiatives like these. Seventy-two percent of Americans think the federal government should impose mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases, and nearly 90 percent believe the federal government should require or encourage companies and individuals to take action to reduce global warming. It is time for the government to heed the call of the American people.

Read the Center for American Progress’ stance and solutions on this issue:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.