The Environmental Protection Agency declared global warming a danger to public health and welfare on Friday, a ruling that all but ensures widespread regulation of carbon emissions in the United States.
“This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. “This pollution problem has a solution – one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country’s dependence on foreign oil.”
The much-awaited “endangerment finding” requires the EPA to force power plants, auto companies, manufacturers and other major industrial sources of greenhouse gas to cut their emissions under the Clean Air Act.
“The case for finding that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere endanger public health and welfare is compelling and, indeed, overwhelming,” the EPA wrote in its analysis.
“The evidence points ineluctably to the conclusion that climate change is upon us as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, that climatic changes are already occurring that harm our health and welfare and that the effects will only worsen over time in the absence of regulatory action.”
The EPA will hold two public hearings and a 60-day comment period before issuing a final rule.
President Barack Obama promised to limit greenhouse gases as a candidate and is pushing Congress to send him legislation that cuts emissions.
The administration wants to take some type of action before international climate talks in Copenhagen next December, so the ruling heightens the pressure on congressional Democrats to pass a climate change bill this year.
It won’t be easy: Republicans and some moderate Democrats fear that new regulations could hurt the struggling economy.
The EPA announcement came almost exactly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emission if human health is endangered by global warming pollution. The high court ordered the Bush administration to reconsider whether greenhouse gas emissions are pollutants, but the White House stalled on making a ruling.
In its analysis, EPA affirmed science supporting global warming, finding that that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases are at unprecedented levels as the “unambiguous result of human emissions.”
Those high levels are likely causing increased temperatures and other climate changes worldwide like increased droughts, flooding, wildfires, heat waves and more severe storms, the agency said.
The high levels also can contribute to respiratory infection, asthma, more intense allergy symptoms, food and water-bourn illnesses and premature death, the EPA said. And the health effects are most likely to impact vulnerable populations like the old, young, sick and disabled.
In addition to threatening the environment and human health, the analysis also found that climate change has national security implications as violence in unstable regions can be escalated due to increased scarcity of resources.
“Climate change can aggravate existing problems in certain regions of the world – such as poverty, social tensions, general environmental degradation and conflict over
increasingly scarce water resources,” according to the EPA report.
While the original case focused only on auto emissions, most experts assume that the EPA will regulate not only cars and trucks but also power plants, manufactures and other industrial sources of pollution.
The legislation currently under discussion in Congress establishes a cap and trade system that would cap industrial emissions of greenhouse gases and create a market for companies to buy, sell and trade pollution allowances.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, praised the EPA’s finding on Friday but argued that legislation was the best way to limit emissions.
“The best and most flexible way to deal with this serious problem is to enact a market-based cap and trade system, which will help us make the transition to clean energy and will bring us innovation and strong economic growth,” she said in a statement.
Environmentalists heralded the ruling as “a game changer.”
“This will be the largest step the federal government will have taken to date on regulating climate change and will be the first step in mandatory reduction,” said Joe Mendelson, the global warming policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.
Some business groups, however, warn that the ruling could hurt the already struggling economy by imposing an avalanche of new regulations on small polluters and stall new projects.
William Kovacs, vice president for the environment, technology and regulatory affairs division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the EPA could regulate auto emissions – the central issue of the lawsuit that prompted the ruling – without the “regulatory cascade.”
“The proposed endangerment finding poses an endangerment to the American economy and to every American family,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. “The regulations could impose complex, costly requirements on restaurants, colleges, schools, shopping malls, bakeries and many other businesses and institutions.”