Environment Picture

Supreme Court signals shift in climate change realities

Opportunities abound in move to a safer energy future
Suddenly, environmental work is hot. It feels like the late 1960s when filthy water and lung-burning air tipped public opinion, drove historic legislative changes and forced President Nixon to sign laws protecting America’s water, land, air and endangered species.

In decades since, American environmentalists most often found themselves playing defense against a phalanx of heavy-spending business associations. On climate change alone, industrial interests prospering in a carbon-dependent economy spent billions of dollars to advertise, lobby and litigate against better enforcement of current laws and to block further greenhouse gases (GHG) controls on power plants and vehicle fleets.

Until recently, it didn’t matter that scientific research piled up, showing carbon-based fuels are raising the earth’s temperature and changing its climate. Coal, oil, autos and their allies in government fought GHG controls by disseminating artificial uncertainty, muzzling respected scientists and making false claims that economic ruin would surely follow GHG controls. While scientists brought greater certainty to the subject, U.S. environmental groups soldiered on to raise public awareness and promote federal reforms that never happened.

After struggling so long to push the climate change rock up Capitol Hill, it’s hard to believe the U.S. Supreme Court has now signed on to our side of the fight. But that’s what happened on April 2nd when in Massachusetts v EPA the Court ruled that because carbon dioxide is a threat to our climate and a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has a responsibility to regulate GHG. This is hugely significant and could signal future decisions, letting states sign on to California’s much stronger climate change controls, something that strikes fear in the hearts of Michigan’s auto industry.

It’s hard to know whether the Detroit 3 finally grasp the magnitude of what they must do to compete in a carbon constrained economy. They’re now calling for an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions but are still fighting tooth and nail against imposition of CAFE reforms to mandate better fleet-wide fuel efficiency. Do they still not recognize that flex fuel cars and corn based ethanol (the only kind we can access so far) are not going to save them from designing at least 40 MPG cars that burn gas, at least for the next decade? Have they not noticed that insurance companies, banks, investment houses and a host of other global businesses are planning for life in a carbon constrained economy?

With President Bush increasingly marginalized, a liberal California woman as Speaker of the House, gas prices hovering at $3 per gallon and the public increasingly alarmed by global warming—and now the Supreme Court’s decision—it will take a whole new attitude and a new fleet for Michigan autos to compete. I only hope they do it in time. Today’s scientific consensus indicates that to avert the worst consequences of climate change, we need an 80% reduction under current levels of U.S. GHG emissions by mid-century. This will take substantial economy-wide changes. If Congressman John Dingell and other leaders can’t put the deal together with this president, there’s little doubt that they’ll do it with the next one.

The climate change crises demands such comprehensive shifts in policies and practices that all of us active in this exciting arena are being tested by the scope and scale of what we must achieve. Ironically, the challenge for environmentalists, Congressional leaders, presidential candidates, auto companies and everyone else now is to manage the opportunities inherent in this massive shift away from our carbon-dependent world economy.
-Lana Pollack, President, Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: climate change
© Copyright Michigan Environmental Council, All rights reserved