On Sept. 27, 2006 California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law bill AB 32. The legislation, known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, is an ambitious step toward statewide reduction of carbon emissions. Ratification of the bill marks the first time in United States history that policymakers will have the authority to limit carbon emissions specifically for the purpose of controlling global warming. As Schwarzenegger closed his addressed to a large San Francisco crowd at the ceremonial signing of the bill, he affirmed, “Other countries will join us when they see all the great work that we are doing. and so will, finally, also, our federal government. [It will] follow us, trust me.” The governor’s assurances of federal action against global warming come at a pivotal time in the American climate change debate.
California is one of many states and other entities involved in a recent wave of legal maneuvers aimed at forcing the United States Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions that are associated with global warming. It is accepted by the vast majority of those in concerned fields that certain chemicals, specifically carbon dioxide, are causes of the climactic shift the earth is experiencing. Carbon dioxide is a product of hydrocarbon fuel combustion and is emitted by cars, trains, power plants and many other things every day. Historically, the EPA has avoided regulation of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. In the near future, however, inaction may no longer be an option.
On Nov. 29, 2006 oral arguments in Case Number 05-1120 will commence in the United States Supreme Court. The case is called Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency and the plaintiffs, led by Massachusetts Solicitor General Thomas L. Casey, include eleven other states, several cities and numerous other organizations. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Baltimore, New York City and Washington D.C. are among the major players. Supreme Court involvement in this battle is the culmination of a very long series of legal proceedings. Many other states and entities have been involved as the issue has climbed its way up through other courts and jurisdictions over the past few years. The case has been surrounded by controversy since the Supreme Court agreed to hear it against the wishes of White House administrators and several other states.
Many states, groups of scientists and energy and auto industry insiders have come forward to voice their opinions to the court in formal “briefs amici curiae.” Submissions by scientists and former EPA administrators in support of emissions regulation have received a great deal of attention. Some have even suggested that the current EPA administration has downplayed the significance of data suggesting that carbon emissions are causing global warming. They have argued that, since some EPA higher-ups are political appointees, the White House may be calling the shots behind the scenes. Others have backed the EPA, claiming that tight limits on carbon dioxide emissions would restrict the sale of large cars and SUVs. They say that such an impediment would be very detrimental to the United States economy, as it would put a large dent in an already ailing American auto industry.
Beneath the volley of accusations being thrown by those on each side of the argument is the fundamental question which the court will address. Does the EPA have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and air pollutants associated with climate change? The court brief for the case explains that, as the law stands, the administrator of the EPA is “required to set emissions standards for any air pollutant from motor vehicles or motor vehicle engines which in his judgment causes or contributes to air pollution which may be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”
The decision of the court may not only force regulation of vehicle emissions, but also expand the mandatory regulations to include industrial sources such as power plants and factories. EPA leadership has maintained throughout all legal skirmishes that it cannot regulate carbon dioxide emissions for several reasons. First, they claim that scientific evidence linking carbon dioxide to global warming is insufficient to merit emissions regulation. Second, that greenhouse gases, because of their indirect impact on human health, are not actually pollutants. The EPA opposition has claimed that carbon emissions contribute to global warming and that the EPA must exercise its existing authority to slow the progress of global climate change.
Each side will have the opportunity to explain their case to the United States Supreme Court beginning on Nov. 29, 2006. The nation will be watching as the Supreme Court works toward a decision on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The court’s ruling on Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency will, without a doubt, be historical and could be a great milestone in the fight against global warming.
Matt Hutton is a fourth-year environmental engineering major, hydrogen energy club member and a contributing columnist for the Green Spot.