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CLIMATE CHANGE: Greenhouse Gases Endanger Public Health – EPA

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Dec 7 2009 (IPS) - Twelve years after the climate change meetings in Kyoto, a much changed U.S. will show up at the Copenhagen conference this week, and, following recent developments in Washington, their ability to offer and agree to international climate actions has likely never been higher.

Friday, President Barack Obama announced he was moving his visit to Copenhagen to Dec. 18, the last day of talks, when most of the other heads of state will make their appearances, and when final agreements are traditionally reached.

Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it has found greenhouse gases constitute a danger to public health and welfare, an announcement that would allow it to regulate them even without congressional legislation on the issue. No climate bill is expected to be passed before the early spring, at the earliest.

“Obviously this is a critical step… I think it will add a bit of a boost to the negotiations in the sense that it provides more clarity,” said Jake Schmidt of the National Resources Defence Council from Copenhagen on Monday. “But clearly we still need Senate action and that is essential for dealing with this challenge.”

He added: “The U.S. is sending not just a big delegation but a very influential delegation” to Copenhagen, commenting that this delegation – it includes four cabinet secretaries as well as executive agency officials, congressmen, the negotiating team and, briefly, the president himself – is “unprecedented.”

The U.S.’s negotiating position and mandate has strengthened slowly but steadily over the last month.

On Nov. 15, it was announced that the U.S. and other countries attending the U.N.’s climate summit in Copenhagen would scale back their goal for the conference from a binding accord to a political agreement that merely sets a path toward reaching a binding accord in the next year. Though the announcement was not a surprise, disappointment rippled through supporters of climate action in the U.S.

Then, on the Nov. 25, the White House announced Obama would stop by Copenhagen on Dec. 9 with U.S. emissions reduction targets in hand. The disappointment receded slightly, but many activists and campaigners wished the president was not going at such an early, inconsequential stage of the negotiations.

China announced their targets the next day. Speaking to reporters last week, though, the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Alden Meyer told reporters, “The level of ambition is too low… The lower expectations for the outcome of Copenhagen is also not so good.”

“Whether you will have the political will to complete a legally binding treaty after ministers and delegations go home is an open question,” he added.

Daniel Lashoff, of the Natural Resources Defence Council, said at the time that the China and U.S. commitments are “serious” and that “they move the ball.”

“In both cases, China and the U.S. should be doing more, but what they’ve proposed in terms of being able to achieve it is realistic,” he said. “And at the end of the day it’s what countries do, not what they say, that matters.”

Then, three days ago, Obama announced he would attend the conference on the last, critical day of meetings. This was followed Monday afternoon – 7pm Copenhagen time – by the EPA announcement.

Speaking to reporters at EPA headquarters before heading out to Copenhagen herself on Wednesday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “These long- overdue findings cement 2009’s place in history as the year when the United States government began addressing the challenge of greenhouse-gas pollution and seizing the opportunity of clean-energy reform.”

“In the last two months, we have done more to address global warming than in the last eight years,” she added.

Commenting on what this and other U.S. domestic action means for the prospects of substantive progress in Copenhagen, Oxfam America’s David Waskow said from Copenhagen, “There was a lot of concern when the economic crisis first hit that it would cannibalise the climate momentum, but we saw very quickly that there was a drive to kill two birds with one stone and focus on a green recovery.”

The announcement follows a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that greenhouse gases can be classified as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act – the “biggest ruling ever on an environmental issue,” according to Jackson. The Bush administration then refused to issue an endangerment finding on whether greenhouse gases constitute a public threat.

Monday’s announcement means that even if Congress is unable to reach a consensus, federal regulations aiming to mitigate climate change will be in place. It provides a foundation for – though does not explicitly require – such regulatory actions as limiting emissions from U.S. vehicles under the proposed Clean Cars programme, emissions reporting systems, or requiring large greenhouse-gas emitting facilities to use best-available technologies to limit the emissions of new or expanded operations. Jackson said there was as yet no timetable for these actions and that the administration still views congressional action as the best way for the U.S. to combat climate change.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group that denies climate change is a problem, said later on Monday that they would challenge the EPA’s finding in court.

But the announcement of the endangerment finding is nonetheless expected to both prod Congress to act on domestic climate legislation and up the momentum toward a global agreement in Denmark.

The timing of the announcement is particularly conspicuous, coming as it does on the opening day of the much-anticipated conference. Asked why the announcement came now rather than when the regulations based on it are announced, as is usually the case for similar EPA actions, Jackson said, “This is different,” explaining that the finding itself was the subject of a Supreme Court case.

But she added that she hoped it would “show the American people that the EPA is on the job,” and that it “means that we arrive at the climate talks in Copenhagen with a clear commitment.”

It also seemed intended to show that the administration stands firmly behind the science of climate change, which has come under attack from climate- change deniers in recent weeks following the theft of several climate scientists’ personal emails.

“There is nothing in the hacked e-mails that undermines the science upon which this decision is based,” Jackson explained. “Raising doubts – even in the face of overwhelming evidence – is a tactic that has been used by defenders of the status quo for years. Those tactics have only served to delay and distract from the real work ahead.”

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