Environmentalists can finally chalk up a long-awaited victory in the fight against global warming. In one split and one unanimous decision on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court appropriately interpreted the Clean Air Act to include carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant that can be federally regulated. While the landmark decisions show that at least five people of prominence believe that the government should have a hand in fighting global warming, it is up to the 535 men and women in Congress to translate the momentum into results.

Sarah Royce

The two decisions handed down by the court on Monday, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy Corp., are two of the most important in decades. In the EPA decision, the court ruled that the state of Massachusetts has legal standing to sue because of inherent damages – a backdoor recognition of global warming. The court also found that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles under the Clean Air Act.

If the agency wants to continue to sidestep its legal duties, it must now prove that carbon dioxide should not be classified as an air pollutant and does not contribute to global warming. The agency has already admitted a link between carbon emissions and global warming.

The second decision continues an expansion of the agency’s authority to control new sources of emissions under the Clean Air Act. More specifically, the ruling allows the EPA to require approval from all factories and power plants that want to make renovations that might increase carbon emissions, making it more difficult to skirt regulation.

These two rulings give the EPA exactly what it needs: a more broad and autonomous role in environmental regulation. As an entity of the Executive Branch, the agency has always been at the whim of the Oval Office – as though scientific facts change with approval ratings. This has especially been a problem with the current administration, whose abuses in environmental policy stretch right up to letting energy companies actually write the law.

But Monday’s decisions go beyond simply giving the EPA more authority to regulate automobile emissions and fulfill its obligations under the Clean Air Act. These decisions are a wake-up call to lawmakers who have been dragging their feet on this important issue.

Since the Democrats took control of Congress, promises have been made repeatedly to bring America to the international forefront in fighting global warming, but there is still little to show for the efforts. To be fair, Congress has been stonewalled by the Bush administration, which still has trouble even saying the words “global warming.”

With a green light from the Supreme Court, lawmakers on Capitol Hill – Democrats and Republicans alike – now have ample reason to act more aggressively. Because automobile emissions contribute more than a quarter of America’s total emissions and 6 percent of the world total, federal regulation can put a big dent in global warming. If lawmakers start with automobile emissions, they can use that reform as a springboard to greater action.

Believe it or not, global warming is not a partisan hoax. Even Chief Justice John Roberts conceded in his dissenting opinion that global warming might be “the most pressing environmental issue of our time.” It’s time we started treating it accordingly.

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