Denial is done. In a historic shift, the EPA ruled on March 20th that global warming poses a grave danger not only to the environment but also to public health – a finding that sets the stage for the agency to regulate planet-heating pollution under the Clean Air Act. "The days of inaction on climate change have ended," says Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. "Delay is over."
This is actually the second time that the EPA has sent an "endangerment finding" on climate change to the White House. In 2007, under a mandate from the Supreme Court to determine whether carbon emissions qualify as "pollutants," the agency delivered the exact same conclusion to the Bush White House. But the administration simply refused to open the e-mail attachment, enabling it to duck the issue for the remainder of Bush's term.
Environmental advocates say the new finding gives President Obama the ability to crack down on major producers of carbon dioxide. "The Chamber of Commerce is running around trying to scare the heck out of everybody, saying EPA is now going to try to regulate cow farts," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "Obviously the people at EPA are not stupid – they're going to target the biggest sources of global-warming pollution: motor vehicles and the electric-power companies."
In fact, the ruling may give Obama something even more valuable than a new regulatory tool. Rather than use the Clean Air Act to curb climate change – a case-by-case process in which every new rule can be stymied by a lawsuit from corporate polluters – the president wants Congress to implement a cap-and-trade system that will lower overall emissions. "The finding gives Obama added leverage in going to Congress," says O'Donnell. "He can say, 'I've got this authority in my back pocket. If you torpedo cap-and-trade, I'll have no choice but to deal with this administratively.'"
Senate Democrats will likely use the finding to prevent Republicans from using a filibuster to forestall climate regulation. "If Congress does nothing," Boxer warns her GOP opponents, "we will be watching EPA do our job."
This story is from the April 16th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.