Court tack­les global warm­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

Will the Supreme Court rule car­bon diox­ide a pol­lu­tant? Such a rul­ing could put a huge damper on the U.S. econ­omy by rais­ing en­ergy costs and even re­strict­ing its use. Af­ter a split de­ci­sion by a three-judge panel of the Cir­cuit Court of D.C., the Supreme Court, which heard oral ar­gu­ments in the case on Nov. 29, an­nounced its readi­ness to deal with the law­suit against the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) brought by the Com­mon­wealth of Mas­sachusetts and oth­ers. The EPA ad­min­is­tra­tor had de­clined to reg­u­late the green­house gas car­bon diox­ide (CO2) as a “pol­lu­tant” un­der the Clean Air Act. Any de­ci­sion car­ries far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for U.S. eco­nomic growth. If the Supreme Court finds against the plain­tiffs, it will also lay to rest the mul­ti­tude of scares that have been hyped by pro­mot­ers of global warm­ing. It may even dampen down the world­wide fears raised by the Stern Re­port, just is­sued by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and call­ing for dra­co­nian mea­sures to cut CO2 emis­sions — some­thing that would be costly and in­ef­fec­tive.

The sci­en­tific is­sues are sub­tle and were never re­solved by the Cir­cuit Court; but they are es­sen­tial to any sound de­ci­sion. Sci­en­tists on all sides agree that CO2 lev­els are in­creas­ing — and that there has been an up­ward trend in tem­per­a­ture since 1976. But this hardly proves the ex­is­tence of man-made global warm­ing. Tem­per­a­tures were ris­ing be­fore 1940 — most likely be­cause of nat­u­ral cli­mate fac­tors. And there was cool­ing un­til 1975 while CO2 lev­els rose rapidly. Fur­ther, pub­lished analy­ses can­not iden­tify a sig­nif­i­cant hu­man com­po­nent in cur­rent warm­ing. Next: Is cli­mate warm­ing good or bad? Would a colder cli­mate be bet­ter? Not likely. Some economists ar­gue that a mod­est warm­ing would im­prove eco­nomic growth and raise av­er­age in­comes. And fi­nally, can emis­sions be re­duced suf­fi­ciently to sta­bi­lize CO2 lev­els? Re­al­is­ti­cally, the an­swer must be: No. It would re­quire a roughly 70 per­cent re­duc­tion from 1990 emis­sion lev­els by all na­tions, in­clud­ing China and In­dia.

The po­lit­i­cal is­sues are also sub­tle. What was con­gres­sional leg­isla­tive in­tent when writ­ing the Clean Air Act? Car­bon diox­ide is not one of the legally spec­i­fied “cri­te­ria pol­lu­tants.” For CO2 to be con­sid­ered a pol­lu­tant one must demon­strate ad­verse health ef­fects — a daunt­ing task. Af­ter all, we con­stantly ex­hale it from our lungs; in­door air typ­i­cally has higher lev­els than am­bi­ent. Should the EPA abol­ish in­door assem­blies — schools, churches, of­fices etc? In the ear­lier suit, the Cir­cuit Court ruled 2-1 that the EPA ad­min­is­tra­tor had prop­erly ex­er­cised his dis­cre­tion. But a fu­ture EPA ad­min­is­tra­tor might de­cide as a mat­ter of “pol­icy judge­ment” that the agency should reg­u­late CO2 as a pol­lu­tant.

In any case, it is vi­tal that the Supreme Court come out with un­am­bigu­ous rul­ings. Un­cer­tainty about fu­ture EPA ac­tions would have se­vere im­pacts on many cur­rent eco­nomic de­ci­sions — for ex­am­ple, by elec­tric util­i­ties plan­ning to build coal-fired power plants. Even worse, a fu­ture EPA could re­ally dam­age the econ­omy by lim­it­ing en­ergy from fos­sil fu­els, de­mand­ing car­bon se­ques­tra­tion, or by man­dat­ing im­pos­si­ble ef­fi­ciency stan­dards. The fu­ture of U.S. pros­per­ity hangs on this case.

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