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Climate change's day in court [Editorial]

It came as no surprise to hear that certain U.S. Supreme Court justices hold misgivings about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — and potentially other stationary sources. In arguments before the court Monday, it was apparent that even some of the liberal justices have doubts about how far the EPA's statutory authority can be pushed in this regard.

But one thing was also clear, at least if one can draw conclusions based on the questions presented to the lawyers arguing Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA: A majority of the court appears content to let stand its 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA that held that the agency can consider carbon dioxide a pollutant despite its ubiquity. Or to put it more simply, the court recognizes that greenhouse gases are hurting the environment and that EPA, under the Clean Air Act, has a role to play in regulating those emissions.

Given the obvious inability of President Barack Obama and the Congress to agree on most any sort of remedy in regard to climate change (let alone any other major issue), that's a relief. EPA regulations may not be the ideal avenue for addressing this problem, but they are the only one available. That much is certain.

Surely then the carbon dioxide that is emitted by coal-fired power plants, one of the largest single sources of greenhouse gases, is just as polluting as what comes out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks, another major source. On some practical level, it would be foolish for one to be regulated and the other not, as the result would make the allowable regulations more punitive and less effective.

Climate change remains one of the most serious, long-term threats, environmental or otherwise, facing this country and the world; the sooner action is taken (and the more broadly it's aimed), the less painful it will be. Not that the U.S. and other nations aren't already facing difficult decisions: While combating climate change will create enormous economic opportunities in fields like renewable energy or the creation of a smart power grid, it also likely means hardships for polluters.

Yet there's no denying that man-made climate change is real and the consequences of it are onerous. As Secretary of State John Kerry observed earlier this month in Indonesia, it's as bad as weapons of mass destruction, disease and terrorism. Given that reality, the U.S. ought to be just as invested in ameliorating its worst effects as it has been in addressing those other threats.

Perhaps some day Congress will be able to face the reality of climate change and approve cap-and-trade or carbon tax legislation that might prove more effective than regulating emissions industry by industry, source by source, permit by permit, as the EPA is doing. The best of those choices would likely be a carbon tax that would allow the free market to determine how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the invisible hand choosing, for instance, if it's more efficient and cost-effective to convert to green energy or electric cars or to pursue off-sets (like planting forests) or some other alternative.

Even many opponents seem to have gravitated away from outright denial of man-made climate change to questioning how much and how fast it's endangering civilization. Not that there still aren't flat-earthers among the ranks of opponents — including a certain contingent on the right that assumes any problem whose remedy involves an expanded role for government is to be avoided no matter what a bunch of scientists have to say about it.

The Supreme Court may yet craft some narrow ruling that limits the EPA's authority to regulate other stationary sources beyond power plants, but we hope it won't prevent the agency from reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future. The next generation may look back at this era as a turning point — or it may curse it as a time when selfish people stuck their collective heads in the sand and failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the coastal flooding, the loss of farmland, the rise of droughts and other weather-related disasters, and the growth of disease and political instability that comes with climate change.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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