MONTPELIER — In a 5-4 decision Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the top federal environmental agency must reconsider whether to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles under the Clean Air Act.
The move is likely to boost the efforts of several states — including Vermont — trying to reduce the emission of greenhouse gas pollutants that cause global warming.
“This decision really turbo-charged Vermont’s efforts at cleaning up our air and taking action to address the very real dangers of global climate change,” said Attorney General William H. Sorrell, a Democrat. “The court made it very clear that curbing pollution is the responsibility of all of us, at every level of government.”
In the case, court rebuffed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) assertions that it does not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion for the majority, and he was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter. The dissenters were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.
In the majority opinion, the court said that the federal Clean Air Act unambiguously gives the EPA authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, a position taken by a dozen states, including Vermont. The court found that the “harms associated with climate change are serious and well-recognized” and that “EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change.”
Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, has long asserted that the federal government needs to become more aggressive in its enforcement of environmental laws, and is supportive of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. “The federal government’s roadblocks to our efforts at cleaning Vermont’s — and the nation’s — air are unacceptable, and I applaud the Supreme Court for its decision today,” he said in a statement.
Vermont’s Natural Resources Secretary George Crombie also hailed the decision, saying that it would give states added ammunition in the fight against climate change. “This decision is a huge catalyst in setting the stage for managing the environment in this era of global warming,” Crombie said. “The court made it clear that the dangers of doing nothing are real. This is a real victory for the environment.”
Aside from Vermont, the city Burlington was one of four cities nationwide that joined the amicus brief of Community Rights Counsel (CRC), urging the Supreme Court to hold that the EPA should regulate such emissions.
"This decision is a significant step forward in gaining control over our greenhouse gas emissions. When these emissions are causing so much damage, they need to be regulated along with other pollutants,” said Mayor Bob Kiss, a Progressive.
Under the Clean Air Act, states may adopt California’s tailpipe emissions standards in lieu of minimum federal standards. Vermont and eight other states have adopted California’s standards to reduce fleet-wide global warming emissions from new vehicles by 25 percent in model year 2009, rising to 30 percent in model year 2016. Had the Court ruled in favor of the Bush administration and the U.S. auto industry, Vermont’s clean cars law would have been in greater jeopardy, said one environmental group.
“This is perhaps the greatest example in recent times of science winning over politics,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “In the face of overwhelming worldwide evidence, Pres. Bush and his administration have been ignoring the facts, attacking the messengers and stifling their own scientists in an effort to block action against global warming. The Supreme Court’s unambiguous rebuke in this case has removed the last fig leaf in the administration’s defense of industrial polluters.”
Vermont’s congressional delegation was also pleased with the ruling.
“Even with its very conservative makeup, the Supreme Court sent a loud and clear message to the Bush administration that the EPA can no longer bury its head in the sand and ignore global warming,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT. “This is a one-two punch against the Bush administration and for the environment.”
Sanders and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, are sponsors of far-reaching legislation aimed at combating climate change. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, is a cosponsor of the bill.
The Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act calls for a reduction of emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
At a press conference, Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT, who has lent his name to several bills aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy, said the ruling was not only good for the enviornment, but for the economy.
“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon emissions are actually pollution, and this means that under the Clean Air Act that they will be subject to regulation. That is good news for our environment, good new for our country,” said Welch. “It’s quite astonishing that the Bush administration resisted this but it is consistent with their approach on global warming — to deny that it exists and then reluctantly acknowledge that it does exist.”
Welch said he hoped the ruling would now allow the country to focus on the “issue of our time — global warming.”
The court’s opinion is available here (PDF download).
BURLINGTON — Jerome Ringo has made a habit of leading African-Americans into new realms.
He was the first African-American ranger at the world's largest Boy Scout Camp, the only African-American delegate to the Kyoto global warming treaty negotiations, and, in 2005, he was selected as chair of the National Wildlife Federation, the first African-American in U.S. history to lead a major conservation organization.
Now he's working on bringing more people of color into the battle against climate change.
Ringo will address this work and other dimensions of the looming problem of the warming planet as the lead speaker for the University of Vermont's spring Aiken Lectures, "Global Climate Change-No Time To Waste” on Thursday.
The free, public event will be held at UVM's Recital Hall on the Redstone Campus, 4-6:30 p.m.
"It is clear that poor people and people of color are going suffer a disproportionate impact of global warming — so we must work together on this," Ringo said, now the president of the powerful Apollo Alliance that works for U.S. energy independence and job creation.
Ringo spent more than 20 years working for Louisiana petrochemical industries, not known as a hotbed of environmentalism.
“It gave a real clear perspective on the other side of the fence," he said, as he went on to become an organizer of environmental justice groups in low-income communities in Louisiana.
Drawing on his diverse experiences, he will speak on "Climate and Atmosphere: Shared Critical Resources, Responsibilities and Values."
"This year's lectures are asking: how do we-practically-get beyond the hostility that so often rises when we have differences of opinion about conservation?" said Larry Forcier, UVM professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and an event organizer.
Following Ringo's address, the focus will then turn to conflict resolution on the international stage. The second Aiken lecture will be given by Dr. Lawrence Susskind, an experienced environmental dispute mediator and professor in the department of urban studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will speak on "Negotiating International Consensus and Taking Collective Action."
Susskind has mediated more than 50 complex disputes related to public health, environmental hazards, and worker safety, including negotiations within the World Trade Organization. He founded and for 13 years was president of Consensus Building Institute a not-for-profit organization that provides mediation services to clients worldwide. Susskind joined the MIT faculty in 1971.
More information is available here at the Aiken Lecture Series website.
Posted April 3, 2007