GLOBAL warming isn t going to melt the polar ice cap and transform Toledo into prime oceanfront real estate next week, or any time soon. But rapid climate change is real, and its effects are expected to be catastrophic.
A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change postulates dramatic changes, including more than a billion people without sufficient water and species becoming extinct, as soon as 2020.
Against that backdrop, the U.S. Supreme Court last week laid the groundwork for steps by the federal government to finally control carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are by-products of auto emissions.
In a 5-4 decision, the court kicked the props out from under the claim by the Bush Administration that the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, as it does other tailpipe pollutants, under the Clean Air Act.
Henceforth, the EPA will be able to sit on its hands only if, as the court wrote, it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change, a position that is scientifically untenable. Vehicle emissions are estimated to account for as much as 25 percent of heat-trapping gases that are contributing to accelerated climate change.
The court s ruling also opens the way for states to establish individual tailpipe emissions standards by 2009. That would be a blow to the auto industry, so it is imperative that Congress set a unified standard.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., wrote a dissent to the court s ruling, arguing that addressing global warming was a task for Congress and the executive branch of government. He also disputed the standing to sue of a coalition of states, cities, and environmental groups. But he, too, seemed to accept the fact of climate change.
The case began back in 1999 when the EPA was asked to set greenhouse-gas standards for new vehicles. Four years later it decided not to do so, and was taken to court by Massachusetts and California, together with other states and environmental entities.
Although the Supreme Court ruling was narrowly focused, the ramifications will almost certainly be widespread and mark a shift in this country s response to emissions and global warming.
Among the first results was a statement from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that he expects the EPA to act quickly in granting his state and others the ability to set their own, tough emission standards, starting with 2009 vehicles.
Further action is likely to come quickly from the Democratic-controlled Congress, although stonewalling by Mr. Bush can be expected.
But he will find few allies. Michigan Rep. John Dingell said the court ruling settles the issue of EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, and went on to say the ruling is another compelling reason why Congress must enact, and the President must sign, comprehensive climate-change legislation.
His comment seems to underscore that the framework for the debate on climate change and emissions has changed. The phenomenon of global warming is accepted, and its potentially catastrophic impact recognized. The debate now is on how best to combat it.
U.S. automakers, which have long fought more stringent standards, may chafe at the ruling, but the push for greener vehicles that also get high mileage is an irresistible force.