For weeks, environmental activists have been eagerly awaiting the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen and hoping that at the conference, the United States will take a firm stance on greenhouse gas emissions. As the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, the United States is currently failing its obligation to protect the environment. But on Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency made a landmark decision that designates greenhouse gases as a threat to public health — a step deemed necessary by the Supreme Court in order for the EPA to regulate emissions. With the whole world watching, President Barack Obama should pledge to get serious on climate change, and Congress should follow his words with actions.

In the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA, the court ruled that the EPA should declare greenhouse gasses a threat to public health before it regulates their emission. While the EPA officially made this designation earlier this week, Obama has reassured members of Congress that the EPA will take no immediate regulatory action without new legislation. This comes despite assurances to the international community that U.S. emissions will be reduced 17 percent by 2020.

This move to reclassify emissions as harmful was long overdue, and it’s about time the EPA made it. Whether or not the EPA actually takes the next step and directly regulates emissions — which would likely prompt lawsuits and court cases —the EPA’s designation should send a message to lawmakers: Get moving before the EPA does your job for you. Legislation that would regulate emissions by creating a “cap-and-trade” system was passed by the House of Representatives on June 26, but has since stalled in the Senate. Delaying on this issue is unacceptable, and Congress should get an emissions bill to Obama’s desk as soon as possible.

Regulating emissions is as critical as ever. There is near certain evidence now that humans are contributing to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which raises temperatures and melts polar ice. This results in higher sea levels and regional climate changes that will damage the agriculture industry, causes extinctions of species and disrupt water resources. In the long run, fixing these problems or at least mitigating these consequences will be difficult — in some cases, impossible — without a concerted effort to fight climate change now.

But America’s approach to climate change has been wholly inadequate compared to the rest of the developed world. In the past, the United States has avoided international agreements arguing that it would wait for commitments from China, the nation that produces the most greenhouse gas emissions of any in the world. U.S. leaders fear that China will gain a decisive economic advantage if the United States regulates emissions but China doesn’t. But this is backward logic — the United States should be taking a tough stance on climate change in hopes of persuading other nations to adopt similar positions. Anything short of that is a disgrace.

The upcoming conference in Copenhagen is a good place to start. Obama should let the world know that the United States is serious about confronting climate change. And Congress should echo his sentiments by getting a bill that regulates emissions to his desk.

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