The Air We Breathe

“Fundamentally, we don’t think carbon dioxide is a pollutant, and so we don’t think these attempts (to require reductions) are a good idea,” says John Felmy (of the American Petroleum Institute, just in case you thought he was an impartial observer).

The Supreme Court agreed today to consider whether or not we should regulate carbon dioxide levels through mandatory programs (rather than the current voluntary programs championed by the EPA). The argument here is that carbon dioxide is a pollutant due to its effect on global warming, and therefore emissions should be regulated by organizations like the EPA, along with other pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Groups like the Sierra Club believe that pollutant emissions must be regulated under the Clean Air Act–the EPA maintains that carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant, and that even if it was they would have discretion over whether or not it should be regulated. Indeed, in 2003 an EPA lawyer claimed that the agency “lacked authority” to stipulate regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. A federal appeals court returned a divided ruling on the issue which has been referred to the Supremes for ultimate disposition.

Carbon dioxide is released any time fossil fuels are burned, making it the leading contender in the destroying the environment race, because as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere it traps heat, thereby contributing to global warming. (I think readers are aware of my firm belief in the reality of global warming.) Other pollutants are contributing to the problem but regulating the leader of the pack could make a big difference, scientists argue, one well worth the potential cost and difficulty.

Currently, the EPA says that voluntary programs are working (and saving money). I suspect that implementing hardline restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, in addition to being a headache, would cost a lot of people a lot of money. Power providers, automotive companies, and manufacturers all have a lot to lose in this battle–of course, so does our entire society if we destroy the planet, but America tends to think in the short rather than long term. A number of states are concerned about the outcome of the ruling as well, because it would affect proposed laws ranging from Maine to California. California already has some of the toughest emissions standards in the nation, and they may be under threat depending upon how the Court rules. This is esepcially troubling when you realize the Bay Area has had three “Spare the Air” days in the last week.

The EPA ought to be our first line of defense against global warming and other environmental issues. It is, after all, the environmental protection agency, and it would be immensely useful for them to actually protect the enviroment. Yet, the Bush administration has created a weaked and feeble EPA, one afraid to rule on issues which will affect us for generations. Scared of its own shadow, the EPA is making choices that all of us may come to regret later.

Is carbon dioxide a pollutant? I argue that yes it is. Although it is a natural byproduct of some processes, it is not natural in these concentrations, and is in turn adding to the particulate loads in the air we inhale, as well as floating around in the atmosphere making all kinds of trouble.

Bringing suits like this one to court is a good way to force the issue, to demand that the EPA follow its own mandate of environmental protection and stewardship. Yes, protecting the environment costs money in the short term, potentially a lot of money. But don’t we all deserve to breathe clean air? Shouldn’t future generations be able to do the same, instead of being force to colonize and destroy other planets? Hey, I’m all for space exploration and housing on the moon, but I would like it to be from choice and the thrill of adventure, rather than a last gasp for life.