Last month, we both received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Protection Award. The EPA awards are meant to encourage individuals and institutions leading in the fight against global warming, which has emerged as the greatest threat to planetary security that we face. Selected by an international panel of judges, our fellow awardees included the Rev. Sally Bingham, a leader in the faith community’s efforts to address global warming; Zhou Dadi, director of China’s Energy Efficiency Research Institute; and Ron Sims, who has made King County, Wash., a leader in climate action.
But while we’re grateful, something about this award troubles us. Why isn’t the EPA itself in this fight? The sad fact is that under its current leadership, the EPA could not qualify for its own award.
That’s right: We have just won a climate award from an agency that had to be sued to act on climate change. For six years, the EPA’s current leadership has denied that it has any power to curb global warming pollution. It took a ruling by the Supreme Court to set the EPA straight that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant and that the EPA has always had the power to curb global warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. Why was it necessary for a broad coalition of states, cities, environmental organizations and friends of the court to take EPA administrator Stephen Johnson to the Supreme Court on such a blindingly obvious question?
When a Senate panel asked Johnson when he would carry out the Supreme Court ruling, he rejected any timetable. “I’m not going to be forced into making a snap decision,” Johnson told reporters.
A snap decision? In President Bush’s first year in office, he asked the National Academy of Science for advice, and the nation’s leading scientists told him global warming was real and caused by man-made pollution. This year, the world’s scientific experts sounded even louder alarm bells, reporting that the role of heat-trapping pollution is “unequivocal,” that the impacts are already being felt, and that they will fall most heavily on poor nations and poor communities within rich nations.
Meanwhile, the EPA administrator is not only dragging his feet, but is also standing in the way of states that want to act. For more than 40 years, California has taken the leadership role in curbing motor-vehicle emissions. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked Johnson for what is usually a routine waiver allowing California to set new standards for vehicles’ global warming emissions. The state’s new standards would cut those emissions by 30 percent over the next eight years. Thirteen other states are ready to follow California’s lead. But the EPA’s Johnson has let the governor’s request sit on his desk for more than a year. Gov. Schwarzenegger said “the clock is ticking,” and promised to go to back to court if he doesn’t get action.
It’s because of this inaction that we have signed a joint statement, along with other individual award winners, calling on the EPA to act on climate change, and in particular to grant California’s waiver request and let states create as big a market as possible for low-emission cars and trucks.
Back where we come from, in the mountain West, our forests are being ravaged by spruce beetles as a result of prolonged drought and warmer winters. Long-term trends show less rain and, especially, less snow. Spring runoff is happening earlier and earlier. As skiers, we can relate to the new saying out here: “April is the new May.” It adds up to a threat that cannot wait any longer for action.
The EPA has hundreds of committed employees who want to get to work to solve the climate problem. Tens of thousands of U.S. autoworkers are ready to meet the growing demand for hybrids and other low-emission vehicles. Now, the Supreme Court has given Johnson a remarkable second chance to make the right decision.
We’d be the first to nominate him for next year’s award if he does.
The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Robert Redford is an actor, director, and trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council who lives in both Utah and California. Auden Schendler is environmental director at Aspen Skiing Company in Aspen, Colo.