WASHINGTON — Capping years of work by U.S. government scientists, the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday declared that the heating of Earth's climate from fossil fuel use threatens human health and the environment.
The decision paves the way for the EPA to order the nation's first mandatory reductions of global warming emissions.
Congress is working on legislation that also would require emissions reductions. President Barack Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said they'd prefer using a new law, rather than EPA rules, to make the reductions and spur renewable energy. The EPA's announcement on Friday, however, serves notice that if Congress doesn't take action, the EPA will.
The EPA had no choice but to make a declaration on whether the science is clear that global warming poses risks. The Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that greenhouse gas emissions were pollutants under the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to determine whether they harmed health and welfare or whether the science was too uncertain to make a judgment.
The EPA's response on Friday was that the scientific evidence required action to reduce risks. U.S. and international climate scientists agree that observed changes in the atmosphere, oceans and ice show the world is warming because of human actions, and that the trend carries risks of irreversible climate disruption that could persist for centuries.
Scientists have charted an increase in Earth's average temperature in recent decades, as the amount of these gases in the atmosphere has grown to levels higher than any time in human history. The EPA's statement, a proposed "endangerment finding," was based on peer-reviewed scientific analysis of the effects of an accumulation of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.
"This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations. Fortunately, it follows President Obama's call for a low-carbon economy and strong leadership in Congress on clean energy and climate legislation," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "This pollution problem has a solution — one that will create millions of green jobs and end our country's dependence on foreign oil."
The EPA document reported that climate change's effects on health could include more droughts, more extreme and more frequent heat waves, more intense storms, rising sea levels and harm to water resources, agriculture, and plants and animals in the wild. The EPA noted that the very young, the elderly and those in poor health could suffer the most harm.
It also found that climate change could threaten national security if it triggered wars or mass migrations as resources became scarce.
The EPA will issue a final version of the finding after a period of public comment. Then EPA will hold more hearings as it prepares to write the rules. It gave no indication on Friday of what kind of rules it might produce. The high court ruling was on motor vehicle emissions, but the scope of regulations could be expanded.
Environmental groups praised the agency.
"President Obama is taking it to the hoop when it comes to our most pressing problems," said David Bookbinder, Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, in a statement.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that EPA scientists had "given us a warning that global warming pollution is a clear, present and future danger to America's families."