There is no question that the announcement by Gina McCarthy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, of a proposed rule to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from power plants is one of the most controversial domestic policy actions taken by the Obama Administration. Even while I watched the speech with colleagues who are supportive of strong actions to address the huge issue of climate change, there were cheers and groans at different parts of her speech. This is a big choice for our country and for the world. So no surprises, arguments for and against different aspects of the proposal are coming fast and furious.
That is as it should be. But let’s not deflect that choice by pretending that the scientific information we have tells us something other than the fundamental facts about human-caused climate change.
The EPA, in drafting its rule, relied on the finding from 2009 that the emission of greenhouse gases endangers human health and welfare. That finding, pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling from 2007, confirmed that the agency has the authority to regulate carbon emissions. It was peer-reviewed by government agencies and independent scientists. There were hundreds of thousands of public comments, and the final finding was essentially a synthesis of the available peer-reviewed scientific information. The scientific process of discovery, observation, analysis, synthesis and peer review helps us understand the world from as many perspectives as possible.
Subsequently, a huge volume of peer-reviewed literature, National Academy of Sciences studies, and most recently the National Climate Assessment, have strengthened the scientific basis for the endangerment finding. The evidence is clear: the climate is changing due to human activity. The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board found that a comprehensive peer-reviewed synthesis of information was used for the new proposed rule. So let’s not pretend, as some are stating without any supporting documentation, that the proposed rule isn’t science-based. It is.
The policy process in our democracy relies on scientific information as one of the key inputs to making societal choices, but of course there are lots of other kinds of information. This proposed rule opens up yet another opportunity for public comment and debate—this week was just the beginning. What is crucial, though, is that we allow the voices of our citizens to be heard in that debate—not just the corporations and trade groups that have a vested interest in the regulations, but those communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and at the fence line of many of the power plants too. Coming to a decision on policy needs to be responsive to their needs.
But the choices are complex, and frankly, most of the decisions about how to move forward in controlling greenhouse gases are left to states and regions. That is nothing new. That’s the mechanism of the Clean Air Act, which has resulted in dramatic improvements in air quality over the last 40 years. EPA is setting the standard for reductions, but working with the states on specific strategies and tactics as it has done for other pollutants.
In our democracy we should argue over the societal choice about which path to take, given what we know about the world around us. EPA has proposed a path forward given what we know. There may be other paths and we can and will debate them as the rule unfolds. But the EPA should be applauded for action not obfuscation.