The US government declared on Friday that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. The declaration means cars, power plants and factories could all soon face much tougher pollution limits.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a big step in that direction with its conclusion that the gases constitute a major hazard to Americans’ health.
That was a reversal from the administration of former US president George W. Bush, which resisted such a conclusion because it feared changes to meet new emission limits would be costly for companies and therefore could harm the national economy.
“In both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem [and] the greenhouse gases that are responsible for it endanger public health and welfare,” the EPA said, concluding the dangers warrant action under federal air pollution laws.
It was the first time the federal government had said it was ready to use the US Clean Air Act to require power plants, cars and trucks to curtail their release of climate-changing pollution, especially carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
The agency said the science pointing to man-made pollution as a cause of global warming was “compelling and overwhelming.”
It also said tailpipe emissions from motor vehicles contribute to the problem.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that regulations were not imminent and made clear that the administration of US President Barack Obama would prefer that Congress handle the climate issue through a broader “cap-and-trade” program that would limit heat-trapping pollution.
She said it was clear from the EPA analysis “that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations” and steps were needed to curtail the impact.
Even if actual regulations are not imminent, the EPA action was seen as likely to encourage action in Congress.
It’s “a wake-up call for Congress,” said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate committee dealing with climate legislation.
She told her colleagues to deal with it directly through legislation, or they would have to let the EPA regulate. If Congress does not move, Boxer said she would press the EPA to take swift action.
Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat whose Energy and Commerce subcommittee in the House of Representatives hopes to draw up legislation in the coming weeks, called the EPA action “a game changer.”
“It now changes the playing field with respect to legislation. It’s now no longer doing a bill or doing nothing. It is now a choice between regulation and legislation,” Markey said.
Environmentalists called the EPA action a watershed in dealing with climate change.
“It’s momentous. This has enormous legal significance. It is the first time the federal government has said officially the science is real, the danger is real and in this case that pollution from cars contributes to it,” said David Doniger, climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.