Everyone knows that the prospect of a binding international agreement to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases rests in part on the potential for ratification by the US Congress. The failure to ratify Kyoto gave the Bush administration the opening to pull out of the agreement, while the inability of the Obama administration to get a cap-and-trade bill through a Senate absorbed by the health care debate is a big reason why a 'political agreement' is being debated today in Copenhagen.
In fact, given the political capital expended by Obama in the health care fight, and heading into an election year dogged by stubbornly high unemployment, its unlikely that Senate Democrats will risk being labeled 'job-killers' in tight reelection battles.
But what if Obama could take the global lead on climate change by skirting the US Congress all together? What if he was unable to get an international agreement ratified after the Bonn summit next year, but implemented a regulatory policy that in practice reduced emissions just as much? Cap-and-trade is needed, but saving the planet is necessary, and the Obama administration might have found a way to do its a part in achieving this goal.
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an executive branch agency under the authority of the US president, issued an historic finding that carbon-dioxide emissions are a 'public threat,' which paves the way for the EPA to directly regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. This would require neither congressional approval nor enforcement, and the finding follows the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases fit the Clean Air Act's definition of air pollutants, which means that a legal challenge to the EPA's authority is all but impossible. The EPA says it will now issue technical guidelines and work with the states to implement them.
This is a really big deal in the United States, and strengthens Obama's hand in Copenhagen. For the first time in over a decade, a US president can credibly claim that he is actively fighting the emission of greenhouse gases. And until the political will forms in Congress to ratify an international, legally-binding agreement, the US president can do the dirty work of cleaning up the environment.
Who knew that the biggest headline on the first day of the conference would come out of Washington and not Copenhagen?