Stephanie Phillips, Associate Editor
Ideology: Environmentalist | Writing From: Portland, Oregon

This week, to the heartbreak of many liberals around the country, the public option began to die, proving the inability of the Democratic leadership to overcome dirty partisan politics and deliver one of its key agenda items.

Watching the past few months of the debate around health care has made me very aware of three American realities: 1) in the heart of the American people lives a deep seated skepticism of government that can easily be aroused, 2) it is very difficult to educate the American public on the complexities of social legislation, particularly in the face of this skepticism and 3) our leaders are unwilling to ignore the cries of their constituents, whatever they are, and however rooted in misunderstanding they may be.

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with these tendencies. While frustrating to those who believe people would be better off with the existence of a public option, it is important to note that these realities are all essential parts of the American spirit of individualism, and belief in government accountability to the desires of the people. They are wrapped up in the same things that inspire my own patriotism. With a failure of the federal public option, states may begin responding to the need by creating their own health care programs, as Massachusetts has done, and eventually our government will adapt to our needs.

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With an awareness of these realities, it seems difficult to imagine that climate change legislation will not suffer the same fate as health care. “Cap and trade” will replace “public option” and a dirty debate will ensue, which will inspire skepticism and rhetoric about a government takeover of industry, an increase in expenses, a burden to the American public during a recession, etc. Reduction goals have already been set far too low at the onset of the debate, and at the end of it, it seems very possible that the result will be federal legislation so watered down it will actually do nothing to reduce the American impact on global climate change.

I would say, so be it – that is part of the American spirit. However, we don’t have that same luxury with climate change. We must act now, and a failure of Congress to legislate will mean subjecting future Americans to a very different lifestyle than the one we currently enjoy.

So simultaneously this week, as the public option died, EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson announced that the EPA has found greenhouse gases dangerous to the “health and welfare of the American people,” and that on-road vehicle emissions are part of that danger.

Jackson explained the potential health dangers, stating “the accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can lead to hotter, longer heat waves that threaten the health of the sick, the poor, the elderly – that can increase ground-level ozone pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.”

This announcement is hugely significant. Aside from serving as a refreshing acknowledgement that some key actors in our government are not listening to the devious, ridiculous rhetoric of climate change skeptics, and not analyzing Climate Gate as if it disproves years of good science, it also sets a legal precedent for real change to happen on climate change in the near future.

Dangerous to human health is the language of the Clean Air Act, first passed in the 1960s, which has been the basis for regulating pollutants that cause major health problems like asthma and heart diseases. Paired with the 2007 Supreme Court decision, which stated that the greenhouse gases could be regulated by the EPA under the Act, this announcement sets the stage for EPA regulation of greenhouse gases without a single action from Congress.

The finding that on road vehicular emissions are a direct threat to human health sets an immediate precedent for the EPA or the President to impose new emissions standards on cars and trucks without any legislation. While Jackson noted that there were not any immediate requirements on industry out of the announcement, it is easy to imagine that the EPA could similarly find that scientifically emissions from the electricity sector and from manufacturing also pose a direct threat to the health and welfare of Americans, and thus find cause to regulate their emissions.

In essence the EPA just created a loophole that will allow the United States to act on climate change while there is still time, and bi-pass the inability of Congress to deliver on its promises, as we’ve seen from health care.

Ultimately, last Monday, the EPA told Congress: “if you can’t fix this, the EPA will,” and told the American people and the world, “the United States will step up on climate change.”

It is conflicting to celebrate this decision, considering that it is a unilateral decision rooted in legislation passed in the ‘60s and that it does not reflect the politics of today. It would be far better to see a congressional solution, fit for the times and reflective of the modern American sentiment. Yet, the realities of science require action, and the climate does not care about the debates of Congress.

The democratic process is a beautiful thing – it is slow, arduous and bureaucratic for a very intentional reason. With all of the red tape there is little room for tyrannical decisions and the minority voice is always heard alongside the majority voice. This is how it should be in a healthy government. Simultaneously, however, we reserve the right to take exception to that principle in extreme cases, in cases of war and direct threat to the American people, with the possibility for unilateral and immediate decision-making. Perhaps action on climate change need be considered alongside such dire issues – without immediate action we are consigning ourselves and our children to a very difficult fate. We simply don’t have the time to work through the political processes and to overrule the skepticism rooted in politics.

The EPA’s announcement provides hope that the United States may face this global challenge and overcome it. If Congress cannot pass effective legislation curbing the emissions of industry, then there is a safety net. Perhaps, however, the threat of imminent regulation from the EPA will inspire compromise in congress that will lead to more creative market-based solutions.