By Christine Todd Whitman
February 23, 2014
The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to address climate change. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but in some quarters, it is. Indeed, it’s at the heart of a set of legal challenges that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Monday.
As administrator of the EPA from 2001-03, I served in the administration of President George W. Bush. I may sometimes disagree with his successor on the best way to address climate change as a matter of policy, but I absolutely agree that the EPA has broad authority to issue regulations addressing climate change, including those being challenged by industry groups and their allies in Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, otherwise known as “the greenhouse gas cases,” or UARG for short.
Climate change is the defining environmental challenge of our time, and there are huge consequences for inaction — whether measured in human lives or economic disruption. Given these stakes, I wish Congress would step up and do its job, refining America’s approach to climate change and expanding the tools at the EPA’s disposal. In previous decades, the EPA could rely upon bipartisan majorities to revise the Clean Air Act and address new and growing air pollution problems directly. Today, gridlock and partisanship make such common-sense action all but impossible. Nevertheless, the Clean Air Act — as written — remains the most powerful tool the EPA has at its disposal to address the issue of climate change.
The Clean Air Act is concerned primarily with the federal government’s ability to address a cross-state, complex, nationwide problem — air pollution. Far from constraining the EPA’s authority or requiring it to return to Congress whenever it needs to address a new problem, the law provides the agency with sweeping authority to address new air pollution challenges as they emerge, including the serious threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions. Although Congress can still step in — as always — to alter the EPA’s course, the law itself is broad enough to ensure that the EPA isn’t powerless in the face of congressional gridlock and a cataclysmic threat.
Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group.