US Republicans Fight Clean Air

The United States Republican party has repeatedly stated its disbelief in climate change. Only three days since Congress went into session for the first time in 2011, the majority-holding party has introduced a bill that will reduce the powers of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Republicans seem committed to fighting clean air.

US Envornmental Protection Agency Logo

In the first full day of session, the new Congress introduced three bills, which outline three different strategies, with the purpose of limiting the EPA’s powers. In addition, the House committee on energy and climate issues was shut down, effective immediately.The US has had existing legislation on reducing air pollution since 1963, when the Clean Air Act was put into force. The EPA is the main enforcement body, with the aim of regulating and reducing air pollutants, for example by setting limits to harmful emissions. Now, the text introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), would declare that greenhouse gasses are not subject to the US Clean Air Act. This is in direct contradiction to the US Supreme Court’s decision of 2007.

Another text, put forward by Rep. Ted Poe (Texas), would result in the blocking of funds to government agencies attempting to use a cap-and-trade system. This attempt to erect a barrier to emissions trading can be categorized as anti-capitalist, since the system (e.g. in Europe) is a market-based mechanism used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reduction of emissions. The negative character of the proposed measure shows that Republicans are against this approach, and yet have not made any suggestions for alternatives.

The third, and most modest, idea was introduced by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W. Virginia) and seeks to delay the EPA’s regulation of CO2 and methane emissions. In a sense, this would mean no change in the status-quo, a stereotypical feature of conservatism. In fact, this makes it most-likely to succeed. The Democrats strongly opposed the previous two measures, while some more moderate members of the minority party, like Dem. Joy Rockefeller (W. Virginia, a coal-rich state), have stated their support for such a bill.

Congresswoman Capito’s bill would impose a two-year delay on the EPA’s regulation over large industrial sites, but would leave its authority over fuel-economy of cars and trucks. The reason for this can be found in the large opposition in the industry sector to the EPA’s regulations, while auto-makers support the measures.

US Congress - fighting climate change for the people?

So far, Rep. Fred Upton (Michigan) and political strategist Tim Phillips have teamed up in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, to state that the EPA’s moves towards greater regulation “represents an unconstitutional power grab the will kill millions of jobs – unless Congress steps in”. They identify the Supreme Court as a main culprit by giving the green light for the EPA to declare greenhouse gasses as dangerous to human environment and health, effectively allowing it to impose rules.

It is doubtful whether these bills will pass through Congress. All except Congresswoman Capito’s bill are seen as imposing unrealistically tough measures. If they do make it through, it will be up to Pres. Obama to make the final decision. Even though he has been a firm supporter of action against climate change, he might be forced to sacrifice the environment in order to pass other legislation through Congress in the next two years.

The questions which arise out of this situation are rather mind-boggling. In the most democratic country in the world, is it politically correct for Congress to challenge decisions by the Supreme Court? In the separation of powers, the legislature or executive cannot meddle in the judicial system. Yet, it seems that this is now being attempted.

Also, an argument raised by many Democrats has been that Republicans are putting business interests in front of human lives. After all, the Clean Air Act was created because of accidents, such as one that occurred in 1948 in the industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania, where a smog-cloud lingered over a populated area for five days, killing 20 people and causing another 6,000 to become ill. By imposing restrictions on the EPA, are the Republicans denying that this took place? Or are they stating that the deaths of 20 people are less important than the business interests of industry?

"Take me to your climate leaders" and not your business partners!

In the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the European Union and others have been putting pressure on each other to tackle climate change to improve the human environment. In the EU, this has become a major priority and market-based mechanisms have been put into place to improve efficiency, create jobs, and contribute to economic growth. US Republicans seem not to believe in the same ideas as their European friends.

Also, Pres. Obama’s health-care reform was aimed at increasing Americans’s access to treatment. Reducing air pollution would effectively tackle the problem at the root rather than at the stem, by reducing the number of people who require health-care. Republicans in Congress seem to be ignoring this.

In the face of removing regulation, one can only hope that local governments and authorities will not stop acting to tackle the problem. Communities, cities, and municipalities can all play a major role in fighting climate change, even with lack of legislation. Yet, without the guidance of a national authority, a break in communication might lead to inaction.

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