Environmental groups have hailed the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the U.S. government has a major role to play in reducing air pollution that contributes to global warming.
The Supreme Court ruled that under the Bush Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has failed to use its the authority to regulate carbon dioxide gas in automobile exhaust as a climate-changing pollutant.
The ruling marks the first time the high court has weighed in on the contentious issue of global warming, which many scientists believe is caused by growing concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from auto emissions and other industrial sources.
The high court essentially sided with environmentalists in its narrow ruling -- five justices prevailing over four -- that the federal government has to deal with the adverse environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions.
Environmentalists like David Hawkins, the director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, are exultant. Hawkins calls the ruling "a huge development in establishing that the law of the land is that EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide." Hawkins says carbon dioxide "is the principal global-warming pollutant from vehicles, which is one of the largest sources of global warming emissions in the United States and globally."
But critics of the high court decision question its wisdom, given the fact that not all scientists agree on the extent to which carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at the conservative, Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., says that the ruling is based on environmentalists' "crisis rhetoric."
Leiberman says that if there were sufficient consumer demand for automobiles with lower carbon dioxide emissions, automakers will build them. He says federal regulation is already acknowledged as a failure "in Europe…[where it has caused] significant increases in energy costs for measures that are actually not doing all that much." Lieberman says "we could be on our way to some very serious economic consequences."
But U.S. auto industry analysts point out that even before the court ruling, American automakers had reached out to environmental groups and proposed new limits on CO2 car emissions. The high court decision, these analysts say, should encourage this corporate trend.
Environmental activist David Hawkins predicts the EPA will soon write regulations setting lower limits on automotive carbon dioxide emissions in much the same way it's done before. "For almost 40 years," Hawkins says, "the EPA has written rules for other pollutants, not for carbon dioxide. Typically, the rules are expressed in terms of how many grams of a pollutant per mile [1.6 kilometers] may be emitted by a vehicle."
Hawkins says manufacturers will then "develop what are prototype vehicles, exactly the kind they propose to manufacture in a given model year. They test them, in their own laboratories or EPA laboratories, and those test results have to show that the vehicles, when operated, will emit fewer grams per mile than the standard."
Hawkins says that cars, trucks, and SUV's made in the United States to meet the new standards would be available in about five years, and would cost about $1,000 more than they otherwise would in that new-car-model year. He also predicts the cars will be smaller, reversing recent manufacturing trends that have responded to consumer demand for minivans and other larger vehicles.