Just Hot Air

Jeffery Holmstead, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air quality (and former chemical industry type), announced Thursday that his agency will no longer regulate the emission of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas fingered as a main cause of global warming. The announcement marks the latest environmental assault from the Bush admininstration.

The EPA’s refusal to classify CO2 as a pollutant allows for the unresticted emission of the gas by automakers, oil companies, and automobiles. Scientists and environmentalists were appalled by the decision. Andrew Gumbel of London’s Independent quotes a climate change expert from the advocacy group Environmental Defense: “‘Saying that carbon dioxide does not cause global warming is like refusing to say smoking causes lung cancer.'” Most scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, creating a sort of planetary chemical imbalance that causes temperatures to rise and leads to higher instances of skin cancer, infectious disease, and water quality problems, as Aaron Zitner, Gary Polakovic, and Elizabeth Shogren of the Los Angeles Times note. But, true to form, the Bush administration has given science a backseat to politics, arguing that the EPA has no authority to monitor CO2. Under Clinton, the agency could restrict greenhouse gas emissions. But the Bush administration’s EPA concluded that “carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons and other emissions did not meet the legal definition of ‘air pollutants’ under the Clean Air Act,” and could therefore not be regulated by the agency.

The decision is likely to prompt lawsuits from the nation’s leading environmental organizations and some state regulatory agencies. In California last year Gray Davis signed into law a rule requiring that greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles be monitored. But, writes Seth Bornstein of Knight-Ridder News Service, “the real fight is likely to shift to Congress, where some lawmakers are proposing a new law giving the EPA clear authority to regulate emissions of gases that cause global warming.”

In the meantime, we can expect more of the same from the Bush administration, whose views on climate change tend to mirror industry’s. Long resistant to the classification of CO2 as an agent of global warming, President Bush backed out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, shortly after he took office, as Alister Doyle of Planet Ark reports. The Protocol is an international treaty that sought to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, but, as the US makes up 4 percent of the world’s population and produces nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, any treaty ratified without US endorsement would be largely ineffective. For now, frustrated global warming experts can only rail against the administration’s environmental stance, as the World Wildlife Fund’s Katherine Silverton does:

“Perhaps the stealth holiday weekend announcement by an exiting General Counsel of an agency with no administrator in place can shield the administration EPA from the fallout over an unpopular decision. Unfortunately, nothing will shield the planet from the consequences of this misguided course.”


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