Amid Coming Climate Catastrophe, EPA Regulations Slowly Roll Out

The Energy Information Administration has a new report out that hits home to someone like me, who has been looking out their window at non-stop rain for the last six days. Basically, the report states that CO2 emissions will grow by 2035, leading to large concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere.

This pathway would almost certainly commit the world to catastrophic climate change, including rapid sea level rise, extreme famine, desertification, and ecological collapse on land and sea. Right now, the United States, with less than five percent of global population, produces 20 percent of global warming pollution. Center for American Progress senior fellow Joe Romm published in Nature in 2008 that humanity “must aim at achieving average annual carbon dioxide emissions of less than 5 GtC [5 billion metric tons of carbon, or 18 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide] this century or risk the catastrophe of reaching atmospheric concentrations of 1,000 p.p.m.” To do so, he said, humanity needs to adopt a “national and global strategy to stop building new traditional coal-fired plants while starting to deploy existing and near-term low-carbon technologies as fast as is humanly possible.”

Despite the moderate success of the Cancun conference, a broad global movement against climate change just isn’t that likely, at least not on the timeframe required. Even the targets that come out of climate change conferences, limiting increases in temperature to just 2 degrees, are now seen as insufficient by climate scientists to eliminate the risk of dangerous climate change.

Given that the dire warnings of the scientists led to basically nothing but a polarization of the debate in America over the past decade, I don’t think that more dire warnings will have the intended result. Nevertheless, they serve as a marker for what is almost certain to happen over the next 25-30 years. We’re moving into an adaptation phase and away from a mitigation phase on climate change.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying mitigation strategies. And according to Robin Bravender, the Administration’s EPA will move on that front as soon as today.

The Obama administration is expected to roll out a major greenhouse gas policy for power plants and refineries as soon as Wednesday, signaling it won’t back off its push to fight climate change in the face of mounting opposition on Capitol Hill.

The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to a schedule for setting greenhouse gas emission limits, known as “performance standards,” for the nation’s two biggest carbon-emitting industries, POLITICO has learned.

Under the schedule agreed to by EPA, states and environmental groups, the agency will issue a draft greenhouse gas performance standard for power plants by July 2011 and a final rule by May 2012. The agreement – which comes after states and environmentalists challenged the George W. Bush administration’s failure to set the standards – requires EPA to issue a draft limit for refineries by Dec. 2011 and a final rule by Nov. 2012.

That would leave open the final rule for two years. There are other rules that will hit January 2 on stationary sources, but those only apply to new and upgraded facilities, not all facilities. And most experts believe that the EPA process will have only a moderate effect on reducing carbon emissions.

Nevertheless, this is pretty much the only game in town. The next Congress’ major focus around climate change will probably be stopping the EPA from regulating at all. So the fight has shifted to preserving the prerogative for the EPA.

The other major venue for climate mitigation is in the judicial branch, where the Supreme Court will hear American Electric Power v. Connecticut, which would allow states and environmental advocacy groups to pursue a public nuisance lawsuit on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in local communities. The Obama Administration wanted that suit vacated previously, because they didn’t want to hamper the work at EPA. But with formal action years away, the court could grant the public nuisance lawsuit, which ideally would work hand in hand with executive branch regulation.

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