April 17, 2009 -- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes declaring greenhouse gasses a threat to public health, setting the stage for a broad debate on climate change this summer in Washington.
The agency says that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from power plants, cars, and other sources can harm human health directly. Ground-level ozone, for example, can contribute to asthma and other lung diseases.
But the EPA also says global warming will have broader health effects on the population. The agency found in July that global warming could increase rates of heat stroke, infectious diseases, drownings due to higher water levels, more frequent and intense wildfires, and water-quality problems.
"In both magnitude and probability, climate change is an enormous problem. The greenhouse gases that are responsible for it endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act," the EPA says.
The EPA announcement was the result of a review ordered by the Supreme Court two years ago. The court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses if the agency determines they endanger health and welfare.
Congress is expected to debate broad climate change legislation this spring and summer. The EPA's announcement triggers a 60-day comment period and then kicks off a process allowing the agency to curb greenhouse gas emissions by regulation if Congress fails to pass a law.
The EPA announcement covers six greenhouse gasses: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).
Backers of climate change legislation hailed the announcement.
"If Congress does not act to pass legislation, then I will call on EPA to take all steps authorized by law to protect our families," says Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Congress debated a global warming bill last year but the measure stalled in the Senate.
"They're hoping this becomes a thing leaning over Congress to keep Congress honest and moving forward," Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, tells WebMD. "Today's action should give the Obama administration more ammunition to get Congress to do its job correctly."
New climate change legislation proposed earlier this month in the House is already running into resistance. Democrats from coal-producing states are skeptical that carbon emissions can be capped without raising prices and hurting jobs.
And Republicans have expressed nearly unanimous opposition to "cap and trade" global warming legislation.
"Forcing hard-working taxpayers to swallow massive new national energy costs is completely irresponsible. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's actions will result in fewer jobs and higher energy prices," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House Republican Conference, says in a statement.