Endangered Science: Why Global Warming Emissions Are Covered by the Clean Air Act

December 12, 2016 | 1:40 pm
The world's largest fossil fuel companies have worked to deceive hte public about the realities and risks of climate change for decades. Photo: Steve Garvie
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Signs are clear that climate science is going to come under attack in a Trump Administration—and scientists are ready and willing to fight back and speak up for the facts. One major cause for concern: the nomination of Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator, despite his questioning of the facts about climate science. Mr. Pruitt should know that the agency he has been nominated to lead has in fact clearly articulated the scientific basis for climate change, and the role of carbon emissions from fossil fuels as a major driver.

The EPA’s Endangerment and Cause and Contribute Findings, signed by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson seven years ago, were a prerequisite to the regulation of global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act. (An important and astonishing piece of history: the finding that global warming emissions harmed human health was in fact reached in 2007 under the Bush Administration EPA, under Administrator Stephen Johnson, but the White House refused to open the email and read it! Talk about burying your head in the sand. Only after the Obama administration came to power was the EPA finally able to release a robust finding.)

Establishing the EPA’s authority to regulate global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act

In all the hyperbole about regulatory overreach, people tend to forget the slow, painstaking, science-based, stakeholder-informed, legal process it took to arrive at the Clean Power Plan, vehicle efficiency standards and other standards to limit global warming emissions.

In 1999, a number of private organizations filed a petition with the EPA asking that it move to regulate global warming emissions from vehicles under the Clean Air Act, based on the clear scientific evidence that those emissions were harmful to human health and welfare. The EPA denied the petition and the case was eventually appealed all the way to the Supreme Court—now with an expanded list of states, local governments and private organizations as petitioners, including my own organization the Union of Concerned Scientists.*

In 2007, the Supreme Court reached a landmark judgment in Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et.al that mandated that, under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must set standards to reduce global warming emissions if the agency found them to be harmful to human health and welfare.

In December 2009, the EPA concluded that a vast body of scientific evidence showed that such emissions do indeed harm our health and welfare. (The final Endangerment Finding was signed after the release of a proposal in April 2009, and an extensive public comment process.)

The agency also found that emissions from new vehicles were a contributor (the Cause and Contribute Finding) to global warming pollution and subsequently made similar determinations about other major sources of emissions including power plants.

These findings, together with the Supreme Court ruling, firmly establish the EPA’s obligation and authority to issue Clean Air Act standards for major sources of carbon pollution, including vehicles and power plants.

Revisiting the Endangerment Finding

There has been some talk about a Trump administration EPA revisiting the endangerment finding and overturning it, thus reversing the basis for any Clean Air Act regulation of global warming emissions.

If Mr. Pruitt were confirmed, and were he to revisit the Endangerment Finding in a fact-based manner, he will find that the scientific basis for climate change, its human-caused drivers, and its impacts on human health and welfare have only become stronger in the intervening years since the finding was issued in 2009.

Yes, the science has advanced and, yes, the message has become even more urgent: The steady trend of global average temperature increase is unequivocal (2016 is on track to be yet another record-breaking year). We must make deep cuts in carbon emissions to help limit some of the worst impacts of climate change.

What has also become clearer is that the impacts of climate change are already upon us in the form of droughts, wildfires, heat waves, rising sea levels and coastal flooding, increased heavy precipitation events and more. The risks of these types of events will only increase if our emissions continue unabated.

That’s why a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, and they specifically support a shift to renewable energy which can help cut carbon emissions. Cutting emissions and fostering a shift to clean energy is what the Clean Power Plan and vehicle efficiency standards are designed to do.

Other policies may also be necessary and important. Congress should also step up and get engaged in addressing climate change. The point is that doing nothing is not an option.

The Senate should vote ‘no’ on Pruitt for the EPA

To be clear: the science of climate change is not an “unsettled debate.” Mr. Trump’s statement in a recent interview that “Nobody really knows” is patently untrue.

In fact, 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is real. Scientists and scientific bodies here in the US and around the world are overwhelmingly in agreement about what is happening (excess carbon emissions in the atmosphere are causing our planet to heat up at an alarming rate) and what the major causes are (primarily, our burning of fossil fuels and cutting down tropical forests).

By nominating Scott Pruitt for the position of EPA Administrator, President-Elect Trump is showing a dangerous dismissiveness of science and science-based policy making. Thankfully, our democracy is founded on a system of checks and balances. The Senate should now reject this completely inappropriate candidate and ask President-Elect Trump to put forward a more suitable choice.

Please add your voice and ask your Senators to vote no on Scott Pruitt.

*For the record, the full list of petitioners in the Massachusetts et al. v EPA et al. case included twelve states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) the District of Columbia, and local governments from American Samoa, New York City, and Baltimore. It also included 13 private organizations (Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Conservation Law Foundation, Environmental Advocates, Environmental Defense, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, International Center for Technology Assessment, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and U. S. Public Interest Research Group. On the opposing side was the EPA, 10 states (Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah) and 6 trade associations (Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, National Automobile Dealers Association, Engine Manufacturers Association, Truck Manufacturers Association, CO2 Litigation Group, and Utility Air Regulatory Group.)