In the US, the legal and policy response to global warming lags far behind the urgency of the problem as articulated by scientists and borne out in the real world. In the past five years, this mismatch has reached frightening proportions, with Arctic sea ice and glaciers rapidly retreating, rising and acidifying seas, stronger storms, more frequent and intense droughts and heat waves, looming species extinction and the climate related-deaths of 300,000 people each year.
Leading scientists warn that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have likely already exceeded safe levels. They must, therefore, be reduced in the next few decades to no more than 350 parts per million from today’s 385 parts per million to avoid triggering catastrophic, and irreversible, changes on the planet. Instead, emissions continue to grow and the world is on a pace to exceed even the worst-case scenarios modelled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The need for action could not be more urgent.
Nevertheless, our federal government has still yet to finalise, much less implement, any meaningful domestic greenhouse gas reduction plan. The great irony of US inaction is that we have the strongest and most successful domestic environmental laws in the world, and no modification of these laws is necessary to use them to address greenhouse gas emissions. Foremost among these laws is the Clean Air Act.
Earlier this year, President Obama made clear his desire to go to the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in December with new climate legislation passed by the US Congress in hand. With each passing day, however, the prospect of the US Congress passing a new law to curb global warming before the Copenhagen talks grows more remote. Even more worrisome is the fact that the bills currently under consideration in the US are simply not strong enough to avoid climate catastrophe. The hopeful news, however, is that even if December arrives without action from the US Congress, the Obama administration can and should still negotiate a strong agreement there, based on the requirements of existing US environmental law, including most prominently the Clean Air Act.
The Clean Air Act is unequivocally the US’s strongest existing tool to fight carbon pollution. Passed in 1970 in response to growing environmental awareness, the Clean Air Act provides a number of successful strategies to reduce air pollution. Perhaps most significantly, we know the Clean Air Act works. It’s directly responsible for saving lives, improving health, and decreasing hospitalisations and lost school and workdays. As per the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2010, the Act will save 23,000 lives and prevent 1.7 million asthma attacks, 4.1 million lost workdays, and over 68,000 hospitalisations and emergency room visits.
The Clean Air Act saves money and protects our economy. In its first two decades alone, the Act provided benefits, including decreased healthcare costs and reduced lost work time, worth $22.2 trillion. These benefits are 42 times greater than the estimated costs of regulation. Similar results can be expected when EPA starts using the Clean Air Act’s successful programmes to reduce greenhouse pollution.
Moreover, in the wake of the critically important 2007 US Supreme Court case Massachusetts vs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s now clear that the EPA is required to reduce greenhouse pollution under the Clean Air Act.
While the Obama administration’s pace in implementing the Clean Air Act has been far slower than ideal, he is at least moving in the right direction. Greenhouse pollution reductions, achievable under the Clean Air Act, can provide steep reductions in US emissions regardless of Congressional action, and can also complement any new laws such as a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax that Congress may enact in the future. President Obama, therefore, already has the domestic legal and regulatory tools he needs to quickly and effectively reduce greenhouse emissions in the US and can rely on those tools in Copenhagen to negotiate and sign a strong agreement. The urgency of the climate crisis requires the bold and swift leadership he promised, not continued inaction due to challenges both real and imagined.
New climate legislation or not, President Obama possesses the power to make a binding international commitment to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Failing to act urgently and strongly is not an option. The US is out of excuses.
Rose Braz is with the Center for Biological Diversity, Tuscan, Arizona
The views expressed by the author are personal