Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox joined a contingent of lawyers and state public officials earlier this week voicing support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2003 decision to refrain from regulating carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA precedent, stemming from the 1990 Clean Air Act’s failure to list carbon dioxide as a pollutant, is to be appealed today in a federal circuit court. Cox pleaded with judges to uphold the precedent, maintaining the state’s economy could not withstand a regulatory blow to an already limping auto industry. While the attorney general’s concern for auto manufacturers is admirable, promoting economic growth is not in Cox’s job description. This action is shortsighted because it neglects pressing public health concerns and the fact that the state cannot sustain a manufacturing economy in the long-term.

Ken Srdjak

From a scientific perspective, the case for regulating carbon dioxide is hard to deny. Public health authorities have linked carbon dioxide emissions to a rising incidence of respiratory-related complications in the United States. Child asthma, now endemic in highly polluted regions, is often blamed on industrial emissions. Though by and large unregulated, carbon dioxide is no safer than other federally regulated pollutants like mercury and sulfur dioxide. Indeed, carbon dioxide is much more insidious. There is a global consensus among scientists that carbon dioxide emissions have contributed to global warming. Human-induced warming, if not controlled, is expected to bring about dramatic climate shifts that threaten to devastate coastal regions and some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems.

Despite these mounting threats, the auto industry — and its new mouthpiece in the attorney general’s office — continue to fight federal attempts to rein in emissions. Critics of federal emission standards argue they would raise production costs at a time when auto manufacturers are struggling to fend off international competitors. Such standards, while potentially painful in the short term, would steer Michigan’s economy away from its dangerous reliance on manufacturing — namely, its auto industry in desperate need of modernization — that continues to dilute the vitality and sophistication of the state’s workforce. Any advances for the auto industry would translate into stronger incentives for investment in fuel-efficient and renewable technology — diversification that demands educated thinkers and outside capital. This would bring more wealth and some of the high-technology jobs Michigan has so desperately longed for.

Regardless of today’s court decision, growing pressure at the state level makes future federal regulation of carbon dioxide all but inevitable. California and New York have fought fervently against the EPA decision, and a coalition of northeastern states has already threatened to adopt its own regional emissions policy. With growing pressure from state governments across the country, there has never been a better time for a federal regulation that would clear the air and prevent costly interstate legal battles. However, if such factionalism is allowed to persist, the legal and economic ramifications could be far reaching. Some automobiles would be acceptable under one state’s emissions standards but not another’s — complicating interstate commerce and flooding federal courts with conflicting appeals. Eventually, a decision will have to be made at the federal level, and given the influence of the coalition of pro-regulation states, the final outcome will likely disappoint Cox.

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