A pair of disparate but inherently linked events involving climate change will thrust the politically volatile and usually back-burner issue to the forefront this week.
Capitol Hill’s leading climate-change skeptic, Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., has a book out this week that is summed up by its title, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
Inhofe is planning a series of interviews bound to elevate the climate-change issue through media outlets like Fox News, which regularly gives a platform to those who deny the comprehensive finding by most scientists that the planet is warming and that human activity is a primary cause.
A quieter, less outwardly political—and not nearly as sexy—discussion of this same issue will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday in a Washington courtroom. But the legal debate will eventually have a much more substantive impact on how Washington policymakers deal with the complex problem of global climate change.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments on four lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The linchpin of the legal challenges is EPA’s “endangerment finding”—a scientific conclusion the agency reached in December 2009 that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are a threat to human health and welfare and must be regulated under the Clean Air Act. (EPA reached that conclusion in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that the agency had the right to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions if it found, as it later did, that those emissions were a threat to public health and welfare.)
EPA’s endangerment finding was the first in a series of steps the Obama administration is taking to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars, power plants, and oil refineries. If the court strikes down this finding, EPA’s tower of climate-change rules could begin to topple.
Roughly two dozen industry groups, coal-intensive companies, and states like Texas and Kansas are suing EPA over its endangerment finding. Those states and other stakeholders filing suit depend heavily on coal, the most prevalent source of electricity in the country but also the dirtiest and most carbon-emitting. It will be hit the hardest by EPA’s climate-change rules.
Not surprisingly, Inhofe is one of the loudest critics of EPA’s endangerment finding. He claims it was a “rushed, biased, and flawed” conclusion.
But even some prominent coal-industry lawyers say the court is unlikely to overturn the agency’s endangerment finding.
“I do agree with the general wisdom that … the industry and state challengers have an uphill battle, especially on the endangerment finding,” said Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer for Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents coal companies like Duke Energy and Southern Company. “On science questions, courts have tended to be very deferential. That fact alone makes it harder for the challengers to win on the endangerment finding.”
These lawsuits are important pieces of the puzzle, but they’re not the endgame. No matter how the court rules, Congress will react both politically and legislatively. But since the decision is expected by summer—in the thick of the election season—politics will probably once again overwhelm any legislative efforts to tackle climate change.
This article appears in the February 27, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.