US declares greenhouse gases are threat to public health
America has signalled a fundamental shift in its stance on global warming with a declaration from the Obama administration that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health.
By Tom Leonard in New York
The statement issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to pave the way for new regulations of cars, power plants, building sites and factories by identifying carbon dioxide and five other gases as pollutants.
Environmental groups applauded it as a landmark decision that would allow Barack Obama to meet his call for a low carbon economy but industry groups warned that the so-called "endangerment finding" could cripple the struggling US economy.
America is the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases but, under the Bush administration, Washington consistently downplayed the threat from global warming and stalled the EPA finding.
The EPA decision, which is subject to a 60-day public review, does not automatically trigger new carbon rules but will allow the government to push ahead with regulating greenhouse gases under federal clear air laws.
The EPA said rising levels of greenhouse gases "are the unambiguous result of human emissions, and are very likely the cause of the observed increase in average temperatures and other climatic changes".
It described the science pointing to man-made pollution as a cause of global warming as "compelling and overwhelming". The EPA also said that exhaust emissions from motor vehicles contribute to climate change.
The agency's action was prompted by a Supreme Court decision in 2007 in which the court said the government could restrict heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act if the EPA found them to be a danger to public health and welfare.
The White House has said would prefer for Congress to pass a bill that caps carbon emissions and requires companies to acquire permits to release carbon into the atmosphere.
However, the EPA finding would allow possible tougher regulatory action if Congress fails to act.
Environmentalists said the finding set the way for a new era of US policy on climate change.
Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director at the National Wildlife Federation, described the decision as "historic and a game-changer for climate policy that will have political and policy repercussions domestically and abroad".
"This is the single largest step the federal government has taken to fight climate change," he said.
Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environment group, said it was a "landmark moment in environmental history".
He added: "The Obama administration now has the legal equivalent of a .44 Magnum. The bullets aren't loaded yet, but they could be."
David Bookbinder, chief climate lawyer of the Sierra Club, said: "Where the Bush administration lagged, the Obama administration is now leading. There is no longer a question of if or even when the US will act on global warming. We are doing so now."
But business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, have warned that the economy could grind to a halt if the EPA was to begin regulating carbon.
Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said such regulation would have an "enormous impact on every facet of the economy, businesses large and small, as well as on the general population".
He said: "Before moving forward with regulation, the United States must ensure that other major global contributors are similarly committed to reducing their ambient greenhouse gas concentrations."
In a letter to the EPA earlier this week, a group of eight prominent American conservatives and free-market campaigners warned that an endangerment finding "would lead to destructive regulatory schemes that Congress never authorised".
It warned Washington that "the administration will bear responsibility for any increase in consumer energy costs, unemployment, and GDP losses" that result.
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