What Can Be Done Now? Climate action under existing U.S. law

Eugene Weekly

February 28, 2013

Dan Galpern


We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

— President Obama, Inaugural Address, Jan. 21, 2013

Efforts are mounting to create political space and bolster the president’s renewed determination to avert increasingly devastating disruption of our planet’s climate system.

To take the most notable example since the inauguration, more than 35,000 protesters converged on the nation’s capitol Feb. 17 for a March on Washington for Climate Action. Their call for action without further delay included the specific demand that the U.S. State Department disapprove an exceptionally damaging scheme for a Canada-to-U.S. tar sands pipeline (the so-called Keystone XL project). Lifecycle carbon emissions from use of tar sands substantially exceed those from other oil sources, and NASA’s James Hansen has warned that the Canadian tar sands “contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history.”

Three days later, the protesters’ overall demand for meaningful climate action appeared to be embraced by John Kerry. In his first major speech as the new U.S. secretary of state, Kerry declared that “We as a nation must have the foresight and courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust we keep for our children and grandchildren: an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate.” That statement should herald the right decision soon over the tar sands matter.

But beyond blocking an exceptionally egregious new carbon-intensive project, what can the federal government do now — particularly when the majority in the U.S. House remains beholden to the short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry and deaf or disdainful of the clarion warning of science that further delay imperils broad reaches of our planet, including much of the American West?

In fact, much can be done. Granted, this Congress is unlikely to pass a new, economy-wide limitation on carbon pollution. But existing law — particularly the set of federal and state authorities and requirements embodied in the Clean Air Act — provides exceptionally strong tools to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions from most of our major sources.

Precisely how this can be done is the subject of a report out this month by the World Resources Institute (WRI), entitled, appropriately enough, “Can The U.S. Get There From Here? Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”

In brief, WRI researchers detail why, under a business-as-usual scenario — one without additional action — the U.S. contribution to the global climate crisis will slowly worsen. However, with strong utilization of existing environmental law, they show that our nation could realize significant short- and medium-term emissions reductions from existing coal and gas power plants and natural gas systems, and phase out certain hydrofluorocarbons that otherwise will efficiently trap atmospheric heat.

Nicholas Blanco, principal author of the WRI study, will be in Eugene to discuss his findings in a panel discussion at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, entitled “Without Further Delay: Reducing Climate Pollution under Existing U.S. Law,” at 10:30 am Sunday, March 3, at the UO School of Law, Room 142.

In this late hour — at the precipice of runaway, uncontrollable planetary heating — dare we do less than is allowed by law?

Originally Appeared in eugene weekly on 02/28/2013