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All History of US Environmental Policy

Week 11: Climate Change

Why has the US Environmental Protection Agency tackled climate change via the Clean Air Act (as opposed to being directly asked to do so by Congress)? What are the limitations of using the Clean Air Act to regulate climate change?

The United States is the country of climate change. Many of the core industrial processes enabling climate change, from the first drilling of oil and fracking to our massive interstate highway expansion, in addition to the scientific research of climate change, occurred here. Westerners’ arrival at this expansive bounty of abundant natural resources coincided with, and perpetuated, the Industrial Revolution. Today, 4% of the world’s population emits 18% of the greenhouse gases. Our lasting political power has manipulated political decisions on all facets of energy, industry, trade, and global economics in favor of the United States’ interests. A global storm of climate action would struggle to take hold without interest from the U.S.

At home, our political system has broken down. It is under the grips of the industries causing the global crisis, through a combination of politicians being directly paid by the affected industries for their stances and funded political actors taking down those who dare oppose the industry, a corporate-owned media driven more to invent or showcase controversy than clarity or education, and remaining politicians trying to invent centrism to appeal widely instead of following any scientific data or rational thought. The Senate is a key political body increasingly and utterly unrepresentative of mainstream opinion and one where blocking progress is hilariously easy. Meanwhile, voters are left struggling to make rational decisions with a cacophony of media showcasing political debates instead of explaining issues, dependent on advertising revenue from the offending parties, and ignoring or portraying negatively any narratives threatening the system in meaningful ways.

With this context, it becomes clear why the U.S. has struggled to regulate climate change. The tick-tock natural cycle of presidencies features two parties opposing one another on the concept of climate, yet until the last two years, neither had any vision of major regulatory change. With the modern Senate rarely able to accomplish anything environmentally wide-reaching, this brings progress on climate change policy down to the question of implementation via existing policies. As carbon dioxide, the most significant contributor to climate change, is a gas at human temperatures, the Clean Air Act is the policy already in place that could regulate it. For decades, this was the only way the EPA could make any type of climate policy.

The Clean Air Act was written primarily to address air pollution exerting direct effects on the humans surrounding it, and has helped curb acid rain and smog and dramatically reduce lead pollution. While regulating carbon dioxide was not the original point of the legislation, it has retroactively been considered among the list. (Carbon dioxide’s consequences being physically distant from the point of emission has not sunken in for everyone, considering last week a crypto mining company, using a massive quantity of fossil fuel-sourced electricity in Texas, demonstrated CO2 PPM readings surrounding their warehouses consistent with global averages, to attempt escaping environmental criticism.) It’s worth noting the CAA’s authors had the vision to include future pollutants, including those harming climate: Senators Edmund Muskie of Maine and Howard Baker of Tennessee mentioned effects on “climate” or “weather” in the definition of an pollution which could “endanger public health or welfare.” (source: NRDC)

EPA has used the authority of the Clean Air Act to implement President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and a variety of other legislations, before the Supreme Court last year stopped them from continuing to regulate carbon pollution. In the past, amendments to the Clean Air Act have taken about twice as long each time they’ve occurred, which made updates to the legislation look politically challenging. Luckily, later in the summer, the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law updated definitions that made it clear the EPA must regulate carbon pollution, cementing it legislatively to prevent courts from reverting powers under a potentially anti-climate future president. This, like other parts of IRA, were a massive win, and put the federal government on more solid footing for future policymaking. Enforcement and follow-through of our goals and aspirations on carbon pollution targets, on the other hand, are looking less sure.