The Center is taking a leadership role in applying law to the greatest environmental crisis of our time — an integrated approach to solving the climate crisis through global warming law. For years, we’ve pioneered new strategies to use existing federal and state law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, force agencies to consider global warming in their decision-making, and protect species threatened most immediately and intensely by global warming.
New science-based, value-added legislation addressing the climate crisis is needed — but advocates must be careful not to unwittingly bolster false claims that global warming is beyond the scope of existing laws and thus can’t be controlled in the short term. On the contrary, our nation’s bedrock environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and state laws like the California Environmental Quality Act, already contain valuable mandates and standards to accomplish all these goals today — if only they were fully enforced. Establishing legal precedents that reframe existing laws with respect to global warming to immediately decrease emissions, protect species, and open doors for the future is one of the Center’s top priorities.
The Clean Air Act already provides a comprehensive greenhouse pollution reduction program, using a tried-and-true regulatory system with a four-decade track record of success. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Act’s reductions in traditional air pollution save at least 45,000 lives per year, and furthermore, that the economic value of the Act’s benefits are 42 times its costs. There’s no reason to abandon any provisions of one of our most successful environmental laws and every reason to enforce the Clean Air Act now. This is why the Center focuses on using the Clean Air Act and science-based, additive legislation that honors and protects existing standards such as the Clean Air Act’s mandate to “protect public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety.”
Other laws, like the Endangered Species Act, provide consistent and complementary mandates to other federal agencies. Having forced the Bush administration to acknowledge the science and impacts of global warming through the Endangered Species Act listing process for the polar bear, we’re now fighting for implementation of all the protections the Endangered Species Act provides. That means protection of the bear’s habitat from oil and gas development and other industrial activities; it also means compelling federal agencies to examine solutions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions pursuant to the Act’s section 7 interagency consultation provisions, in order to maximally minimize harm to the species.
The National Environmental Policy Act (often known as NEPA) protects the environment by promoting fully informed government decision-making based on the common-sense principle that you can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge it. The Center led a coalition of 11 states, two cities, and four environmental groups in establishing the need for a rigorous analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in the NEPA process in Center for Biological Diversity v. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the strongest appellate decision to date on the issue. In that case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the government’s lax fuel economy standards for pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles for a number of violations, including failure to adequately consider the greenhouse gas implications of the standards in the NEPA analysis. In addition to establishing critically important legal precedent, as the New York Times declared on November 16, 2007, the ruling was a “major setback for both the auto industry and the White House at a time of growing public concern over the rising price of gasoline and the issue of climate change.”
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One of the greatest ironies of the eight-year period under the Bush administration is that the United States — the world’s largest cumulative greenhouse polluter — was the single greatest obstacle to international progress at the very same time that it possessed some of the world’s strongest and most enlightened domestic environmental protection legislation. The Center is focused on convincing the Obama administration that while new science-based climate legislation would be a plus, the most important way forward is to meet international obligations, as well as negotiate and achieve new targets, through immediate and full enforcement of our existing laws.