Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Carbon Dioxide and the Supreme Court.

Today the Supreme Court will decide whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency has the right and/or responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, does the Clean Air Act mean anything? The law dictates that the EPA must regulate pollutants that can reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare, including those that affect weather or climate. It doesn't get much more clear-cut than the Greenhouse Effect, no matter what the shrill voices from the Red States claim.

It took a suit on behalf of a dozen states to try to force the Bush administration into doing its job for the American people. It has taken three years for the Supreme Court to hear the case. During his initial presidential campaign, Bush expressed explicit support for carbon dioxide regulation. Christine Todd Whitman, then EPA adminstrator, was sent to speak with the Europe's top eight industrial powers, and came back with an agreement to cap CO2 emissions. Upon her return she found that Dubya had a change of heart... after he met with several GOP senators from energy-producing states. Instead of working to fulfill his campaign promises, he decided to support voluntary programs that would rely on the goodwill of energy companies and auto manufacturers to look past their bottom line, and regulate themselves.

The arguments put forth in resistance to EPA regulations are remarkable. They claim that CO2 is a naturally occuring substance required for life, and therefore should not be classed as a pollutant. Past that, they say that there is little evidence that CO2 emissions present any problem. Scientists dispute that particular claim, and liken the relationship between CO2 and global warming to that between smoking and lung cancer. The administration's ultimate argument is that the states involved have no right to sue the EPA or the government. They say that claims of damage that include rising sea levels, lost shoreline, increased smog, and increasingly deadly storms and floods, are too generalized to be decided by the nation's highest court. It's clear that they want to avoid the consequences of being taken to task for a record of lax environmental policies. Yet they have no will to help remediate the situation.

Assuming the responsibility for impending catastrophe is certainly frightening. And so are the prospects of making real sacrifices to avert them. But that seems to be one of the essential functions for a federal government. The Bush administration has constantly asserted its role in keeping the nation safe from terrorism, but have shirked their regulatory capacity in a situation where it could be of much use. This is a high-stakes case. Will the Supreme Court empower the American people to hold the federal government to its mission of protecting the nation's (and the world's) future?

A full 25 % of CO2 emissions are produced by the United States. The administration has notably said that the issue must be determined on a global level, but have continuosly refused to participate in worldwide summits aimed at confronting vitally important environmental issues. This Supreme Court decision could change that. But what have we come to expect in the way of checks and balances in our modern age?

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