The US Environmental Protection Authority has announced that emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are a threat to public health, which opens the way for them to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, a measure once promised by George Bush as a presidential candidate but ferociously resisted by his administration.
As Brad Plumer explains here, the regulations will transform the Congressional debate over bills to introduce a national cap-and-trade system. In the absence of EPA regulations, and assuming continuation of current practices regarding the filibuster, the Republicans in the Senate could block any action as long as they could muster 41 votes (and of course, ratification of a treaty like Kyoto requires 66 out of 100 votes). But now the effect of a filibuster will be to leave the EPA to deal with the issue by regulation, which might include establishment of emissions trading schemes, as well as technological mandates to adopt best practice technology. Almost certainly, some Senate Republicans will prefer a deal where they get to protect some favored interests to a system of regulation over which they have no say.
The only other possibility for the Repubs, flagged by leading delusionist Senator Inhofe would be to pass legislation overriding the EPA determination. But Inhofe seems to have been drinking too deeply at the well of delusion, or else to be engaging in feelgood gestures – the likelihood of getting a Congressional majority for such an action is close to zero.
This is obviously a major step forward, and means that all governments in the developed world are now committed to reducing CO2 emissions (regardless of how much some would like to backslide on their commitments). The big question now is whether international negotiations can produce an agreement to stabilise the global climate or whether it will be politics as usual, with everyone trying to offer as little as possible.
At this stage, the omens don’t look that good. On the other hand, if you compare the situation now to that of, say, five years ago, when Bush and Howard were blocking any action at all, and climate section “sceptics” were still widely regarded as serious participants in scientific debate, there has been a lot of progress.
fn1. Of course, they are still widely regarded that way in some quarters, but only by people who can’t be regarded as serious participants in debate of any kind.