Six Myths About Climate Change and the Clean Air Act

by Amy Sinden

April 18, 2011

In politics, repeating something over and over again can sometimes make it stick, whether it's true or not. From Reagan’s welfare queens, to the specter of “socialized” medicine leading to imminent communist takeover, these sorts of myths often start on the far right but then move surprisingly far to the center. And as the EPA has begun to move forward with regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, we've seen one of these myths begin to take shape. This time it’s the notion that the Clean Air Act is a bad tool for addressing climate change.

At the heart of it is this: a lot of regulated industries and their allies don't want any limits at all on how much carbon dioxide they can release into the atmosphere. But the Clean Air Act says that EPA must regulate any air pollutant that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare and defines “air pollutant” very broadly. In 2007, the Supreme Court held that greenhouse gases are “air pollutants” under the Act, and ordered EPA to make a scientific judgment under Section 202 about whether the greenhouse gases emitted by cars and trucks “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Making repeated reference to reports from the National Research Council and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finding conclusive evidence of human-caused global warming, the Supreme Court made clear that, in light of the scientific evidence, it would be difficult for EPA to find no endangerment.

Industry allies have taken various shots at EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gasses, but the arguments range from incorrect to absurd. Fellow Member Scholar Dan Farber and I have just written a memo, Six Myths About Climate Change and the Clean Air Act, addressing these topics. In the short paper we respond to six sadly common claims:

  • The EPA has made a power grab by trying to use the Clean Air Act.
  • The Clean Air Act was never intended to address a problem like global warming. It’s only aimed at harms from breathing air pollutants.
  • The Clean Air Act only addresses localized pollution problems.
  • EPA can’t regulate because it lacks decisive evidence of harm from greenhouse gases.
  • Regulation under the Clean Air Act relies on State Implementation Plans, which don’t fit with an international problem such as climate change.
  • Regulation under the Clean Air Act would be an economic disaster.

The EPA can and will defend its authority in the courts, but that's not going to stop opponents from trying to attack it in the court of public opinion with myths like these. Our memo lays out how these claims are myths, and how the EPA has the law on its side.

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Also from Amy Sinden

Amy Sinden is the James E. Beasley Professor of Law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. She has been a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and at the Temple-Tsinghua Masters of Law program in Beijing,China. She is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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