By DAN K. THOMASSON
What’s that old line: "The end of the world has been delayed indefinitely because of a shortage of trumpeters"? Well, there’s an increasing number of them now. Hardly a day goes by when someone hasn’t signed up to trumpet the Apocalypse, from Al Gore to international scientific panels and even the U.S. Supreme Court.
Whatever your feelings about global warming, the political realities of it are here to stay. If there was any doubt about that, the high court dispelled it with its narrow ruling that puts the Environmental Protection Agency on notice that claiming lack of authority to regulate greenhouse gases in auto emissions won’t cut it.
Between the lines of the court’s opinion is the recognition that "yes Virginia, there is a boogeyman" and it comes in the form of chemical elements that are trapping the heat of the Earth, an opinion that preceded by only a few days a long anticipated international report that 90 percent of the problem is manmade. For any agency or administration to ignore this issue in the face of such an overwhelming chorus of warnings is to flirt with political suicide.
But until the 5 to 4 decision in a suit brought by the state of Massachusetts, that is exactly what the Bush administration has done through EPA, which has maintained it had no authority to regulate the heat-trapping elements in vehicle exhausts, a stance that helped those dwindling few who believe there is scant evidence that cars or any other human endeavor is responsible for the dramatic climate change. Just to nail down things a bit, the court further allowed that the EPA could not sidestep that authority.
Although the court’s ruling doesn’t force the EPA to regulate the gases, the practical impact of the decision is just that. The agency would expect to face a new blizzard of legal challenges filed by environmentalists if it did not. Actually, a number of such cases, including a similar one on the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, have been held up waiting for the regulations on cars.
It is not overstating the matter to predict that this, coupled with another decision that broadens EPA authority over factories and power plants that increase pollutants by adding capacity, may have handed environmentalists their single biggest day in the long fight over global warming.
It is a severe setback for the president, whom they charge has shamefully neglected the obvious threat to human kind. The ruling also provides new impetus for congressional action on this volatile issue. Whether or not the justices had seen Gore’s Academy Award-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" about the devastating possibilities of global warming is not known. The fact is millions of Americans have and the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee has realized a rebirth of popularity, especially in the burgeoning Green movement, since it was released last year. Contrary to its image as a cloistered panel immune from daily realities, the court is almost always aware of public furor over most issues, particularly those general outcries that have become as deafening as this one.
With the handwriting on the wall, even industry groups that have until recently opposed further controls on emissions are now lining up to work with environmentalists on proposals for limiting pollutants. Dave McCurdy, the president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was quoted after the ruling as saying the group was looking forward to working with the White House and the Congress on the issue. Activists recently began to take their cases to a growing number of states where the climate change fear is more prevalent, especially car-glutted California, which has moved to set its own standards for emissions.
Gore can and should claim major credit for pushing the climate change issue to the forefront, convincing millions of doubters of the dire consequences of inaction. Gore literally has gotten fat off his success, prompting one wag to predict that if he jumped off the polar ice cap it would further raise the levels of the oceans.
No matter where one stands on this issue, the court’s decision, the latest report and mounting outdoor evidence that something is wrong have launched an entirely new urgency in the efforts to save the planet from extinction. The threat will be with us probably until none of us is here any longer. For the White House or the Congress to continue to ignore it brings us closer to the day when there will be sufficient trumpeters.