Going Rogue on Endangerment

A rogues’ gallery of science-denying coal and oil companies, industry lobbyists and trade associations, right-wing advocacy groups, and ultra-conservative elected officials have lined up to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its landmark “endangerment finding” – the Agency’s scientific determination that emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping air pollutants are dangerous to public health and the environment. 

At least 16 lawsuits have been joined together in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington under the name Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA.   A partial list of the science-denying petitioners speaks volumes: 

  • Right-wing climate science deniers including the corporate-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute and tea party-backer FreedomWorks Foundation
  • Anti-regulatory business lobbyists led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which last summer called for a “Scopes monkey trial” on global warming
  • Coal companies, including the National Mining Association, Peabody Energy, and Massey Energy (whose CEO Don Blankenship calls global warming “a hoax and a Ponzi scheme”)
  • Coal-burning utilities, through their perennial litigation arm called the Utility Air Regulatory Group
  • Oil companies, through the American Petroleum Institute, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, and the Western States Petroleum Association
  • Steel, cement, and other trade groups, including the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Portland Cement Association, and the National Association of Homebuilders 
  • Agribusiness, through the American Farm Bureau Federation and other groups
  • Climate denying politicians, including the tea party-courting governor of Texas, his counterparts in Alabama and Virginia, and a dozen Republican members of Congress such as Joe Barton and Marsha Blackburn

NRDC has joined with four other environmental organizations and 17 state and local governments that have intervened to help defend EPA’s endangerment finding.

As lawsuits, though, these cases aren’t much of a threat.  EPA is faithfully following the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 global warming decision, Massachusetts v. EPAYou could not ask for a more transparent and thorough process. 

EPA painstakingly reviewed dozens of climate science assessments by America’s top science agencies – ranging from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense – as well as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

EPA evaluated more than 300,000 public comments and produced a 200-page scientific synthesis and a 700-page response to comments to support its December final decision. 

The courts are no more likely to overturn EPA’s finding that carbon pollution causes dangerous climate change than to throw out the Surgeon General’s finding that smoking causes cancer.

But these lawsuits were not brought in order to win in the courts.  Rather, they are part of a cynical political strategy to block carbon curbs by manufacturing a perception of uncertainty about the strength of climate science.  The primary tactic is to endlessly recycle a handful of faulty details found in the thousands of pages of the 2007 IPCC report, and to repeat, repeat, repeat a few juicy quotes from hacked emails. (See posts here, here, and here by NRDC’s senior climate scientist, Dan Lashof.)   

The lawsuits, their backers hope, will provide more press hooks for repeating these charges.  And even though the courts will uphold EPA in a year or so, the cases will serve their intended function if they provide a veneer of legitimacy now for lobbyists backing measures in Congress to repeal the endangerment finding or reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling by declaring that carbon dioxide is a not an air pollutant. 

It’s not hard to pop this bubble by listening to real scientists.  For example, the Texas State Climatologist took sharp issue with the science claims behind Texas’s lawsuit. Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon told the Center for American Progress’s Think Progress blog: 

However, it is also apparent that if atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases continue to rise due to human influence, the Earth would eventually reach a point where there would be massive disruptions of ecosystems, changes in sea level, decreases in air quality, and so forth that would, in particular, substantially harm the public welfare of those generations forced to experience them. So anthropogenic increases of greenhouse gas concentrations clearly present a danger to the public welfare, and I agree with the EPA’s findings in that sense.

He further stated: 

Do I think that the EPA based its assessment on sound science? I think, by basing its assessments on the IPCC, USGCRP, and NAS reports, it was basing its assessments on the best available science. I have the expertise to independently evaluate the quality of these reports, and on the whole they constitute in my opinion the most comprehensive, balanced assessments of climate change science presently available.  

Dr. Kerry Emanuel, a renowned hurricane expert, wrote in the Boston Globe that “Climate changes are proven fact.”  Here’s his answer to this “largely manufactured debate”:

With all the interest in alleged misdeeds of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and hacked email exchanges among climate scientists, it is easy to lose track of the compelling strands of scientific evidence that have led almost all climate scientists to conclude that mankind is altering climate in potentially dangerous ways. . . .

A few essential points are undisputed among climate scientists. First, the surface temperature of the Earth is roughly 60 F higher than it would otherwise be thanks to a few greenhouse gasses that collectively make up only about 3 percent of the mass of our atmosphere.

Second, the concentrations of the two most important long-lived greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, have been increasing since the dawn of the industrial era; carbon dioxide alone has increased by about 40 percent. These increases have been brought about by fossil fuel combustion and changes in land use.

Third, in the absence of any feedbacks except for temperature itself, doubling carbon dioxide would increase the global average surface temperature by about 1.8 F. And fourth, global temperatures have been rising for roughly the past century and have so far increased by about 1.4 F. The rate of rise of surface temperature is consistent with predictions of human-caused global warming that date back to the 19th century and is larger than any natural change we have been able to discern for at least the past 1,000 years.

Dr. Emanuel said:

The uncertainties in the models, theory, and observations of climate change and associated risks and the sheer complexity of the problem provide many rounds of ammunition for the agenda-driven, be they apocalyptic or denialist. For the lawyerly, with the ability and will to cherry-pick the evidence, there is much ripe fruit to hurl in the increasingly heated climate wars of our generation.

But when the dust settles, what we are left with is the evidence. And, in spite of all its complexity and uncertainties, we should not lose track of the simple fact that theory, actual observations of the planet, and complex models - however imperfect each is in isolation - all point to ongoing, potentially dangerous human alteration of climate. . . .

We do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty, which will never come, nor does it do anyone any good to assassinate science, the messenger.

The Clean Air Act’s trigger for action – the scientific finding that an air pollutant endangers public health and welfare – is built on this last principle that “we do not have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty.”  Using the Clean Air Act to help protect us from global warming requires nothing different than what we’ve done for four decades for other kinds of pollution:  follow the science, act when pollution endangers our health and welfare, and use available and affordable technology to clean up vehicles, power plants, and other big pollution sources.   It’s practical, effective, affordable, and it works.

Check out this interview on Clean Skies News: