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Center for Biological Diversity:
Climate Law Institute

The Hill, July 23, 2013

McCarthy’s next challenge at EPA: Confront climate chaos
By Bill Snape

It’s been a bruising and confusing four months for Gina McCarthy. But now that the new boss of the Environmental Protection Agency has survived her amazingly protracted Senate confirmation process, she needs to shrug off that bizarre experience and immediately roll up her sleeves. It’s time to get to work. With the political sideshow over, McCarthy needs to take bold action on an issue that actually affects real people outside of Washington: the climate crisis.

McCarthy must make good on President Obama’s call for action against climate change, of course. But she also needs to recognize that the president’s recently announced climate plan doesn’t go far enough to match the urgency of the problem. To put a real dent in the greenhouse gas pollution warming the planet, the EPA’s new chief should consider putting a science-based national cap on carbon pollution.

A key point in the Obama administration’s climate plan is a directive to the EPA to establish carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. That’s an important step -- such standards will address a key pollution source and are already required by law.

But much more is needed. The power plant pollution-controls and other measures the president has announced are aimed at fulfilling his administration’s pledge to put the United States on the path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Such a reduction, however, would not be enough to avert catastrophic temperature rises, according to climate scientists.  That’s why McCarthy should use the Clean Air Act to set a cap on carbon pollution.

A carbon cap would not require new legislation. The Obama administration could  declare carbon dioxide a “criteria pollutant” under the Clean Air Act and set a national pollution cap for CO2 at no greater than 350 parts per million (ppm).

Many independent scientists have concluded that atmospheric CO2 levels above 350 ppm will cause catastrophic global warming. Pollution caps could also be set for other dangerous greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide. The EPA has already set caps on other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, lead and ozone. These national pollution caps are known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Once the safe level has been scientifically established, each of the 50 states develops strategies to attain the prescribed pollution caps.

It’s even feasible in a global context. The Clean Air Act was actually designed to deal with international pollution problems like that posed by greenhouse gases. Section 179B of the law, for example, requires that state pollution-control plans be approved by the EPA if they “would be adequate to attain and maintain the relevant national ambient air quality standards…but for emissions emanating from outside of the United States.”  Thus, the U.S. would not be carrying the pollution reduction load for countries such as China.

That’s the kind of powerful, flexible tool we need to confront this terrifyingly serious problem.

Just days before McCarthy’s confirmation, a new study underscored the urgent need for a climate solution. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that each Celsius degree of global warming will raise sea levels by 2.5 yards over the centuries ahead.

That could mean a 30-foot rise in sea-level since we’re on track to experience an increase up to 4 degrees Celsius, according to many experts. And the damage and danger will mount long before we get anywhere near that 10-yard mark.

Higher sea levels are already increasing the danger from extreme weather, especially storm surges, the devastating walls of water that did so much damage to New York and New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy.

The need to act is clear -- and so is the need for McCarthy to come up with powerful solutions that will really make a difference.

Snape is senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity. www.BiologicalDiversity.org

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton