The US government said on Monday it would start to regulate carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant, sidestepping a divided Congress to give momentum to global climate talks in Copenhagen.
The decision paves the way for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue standards on how much carbon dioxide US factories, buildings and cars can emit, even without legislation in Congress.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed orders declaring six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, to be pollutants that are subject to government regulation.
The EPA “is now authorized and obligated to make reasonable efforts to reduce greenhouse pollutants,” Jackson told a news conference. “It means that we arrive at the climate talks in Copenhagen with a clear demonstration of our commitment to facing this global challenge.”
Jackson said the ruling would have only one immediate effect — the US would finalize its first nationwide carbon emission standards on light trucks.
It gives US President Barack Obama, who will visit the summit in Copenhagen, powerful new leverage to meet US pledges on emissions even if his critics in Congress derail legislation.
The EPA ruling is the culmination of government studies since April 2007, when five of the nine judges on the US Supreme Court agreed that carbon dioxide was a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
“It’s a signal from the administration heading into Copenhagen that, look, we’ve got things going on in Congress, but we’re also not going to wait for them,” said Joe Mendelson, the global warming policy director for the National Wildlife Federation who worked on the Supreme Court case.
The move has already faced fierce resistance by business leaders and many lawmakers of the rival Republican Party.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s top business lobby, feared that businesses would be subject to a host of new regulations at a time of economic uncertainty.
Thomas Donohue, the chamber’s president, said that the EPA threatened to “choke off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project.”
Key Republicans have also pointed to recent leaked e-mails from prominent climate scientists that they say call into question the basis behind action on global warming.
“It is unconscionable that unelected bureaucrats at the EPA have declared carbon dioxide a public danger despite a lack of scientific evidence to support their ruling,” Texas Governor Rick Perry said. “Today’s ruling continues a pattern of aggressive federal encroachment into every farm, business, church and household in America.”
Another Republican governor — Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, which has been at the forefront of fighting global warming — hailed Obama for turning climate action into a national rather than state priority.
“Climate change is real and it is welcome news to see that the US EPA is taking its head out of the sand,” Schwarzenegger said.
Climate scientists behind the leaked e-mails said that their remarks were taken out of context — assertions backed by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
“I think that this notion that there is some debate on the science is kind of silly,” Gibbs said.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll out on Monday found that Americans were increasingly skeptical.
Forty-five percent of the 1,041 adults polled believed global warming was a proven fact and mostly caused by human activity, down from 56 percent in October 2007, the survey found.
The House of Representatives in June narrowly approved legislation to set up the first US nationwide “cap-and-trade” system — similar to a plan in Europe that restricts emissions, but offers businesses an economic incentive by allowing trading in credits.
Both Jackson and Democratic congressional leaders said they still preferred a cap-and-trade system, as it would affect the entire economy.
“The message to Congress is crystal clear: Get moving,” said Senator John Kerry, an author of the legislation.
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