One of the many troubling aspects of the Obama administration is its eagerness to use the federal regulatory apparatus to achieve its political goals when it cannot advance them through the democratic process in Congress. The sterling example of this is the EPA’s push to enact, on self-asserted authority, new limitations on the emission of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. The EPA’s decision to do so was explicitly political: It telegraphed its intention to act unilaterally should Congress fail to enact the package of taxes and restrictions known as “cap and trade.” Mindful that the legislation would impose real costs in the here and now but offer only theoretical benefits, and those at some far remove in the future, Congress wisely rejected the bill. And so EPA’s bureaucrats went to their battle stations. Put another way, our elected representatives have failed to comply with the desires of our unelected masters, and the unelected government proposes to assert its supremacy.
Congressional Republicans on Wednesday pushed back, as it was necessary to do, with Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Fred Upton introducing legislation curtailing the EPA’s unilateral ambitions.
There is a good deal at stake here, and the heavy economic burden that would accompany this regulation is the least of it. We are reminded, unnecessarily, that the Democratic party is comically misnamed, inasmuch as its members habitually seek to impose their agenda through such undemocratic or even antidemocratic means as judicial fiats and regulatory overrides of democratic decisions. Both of those are a feature of the present dispute, the EPA’s arrogant regulatory overreach having been unleashed by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’s opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA, the result of a finding that Chief Justice John Roberts rightly denounced as a transgression of the Court’s constitutional limits.
After losing the cap-and-trade fight in Congress, the Obama administration insists that it enjoys the power to set aside the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives. There is a natural rivalry between the executive and legislative branches, and friction is to be expected, but the EPA here is acting indefensibly: It claims authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions as pollution under the Clean Air Act, which does not specify carbon dioxide as a pollutant, nor establish a framework under which it reasonably could be found to be one. And a good thing it doesn’t, since that so-called pollutant is what human beings and other mammals exhale. (God help us if the EPA ever sets its beady gaze upon a more potent greenhouse gas, such as water vapor.) To whatever extent carbon dioxide may be a problem, it is a global problem, beyond the scope of the Clean Air Act and beyond the jurisdiction of the EPA.
Carbon dioxide produced by human activity may or may not be a determining factor in the planet’s climate a century hence. That is much relevant to the question at hand, since it is absolutely beyond dispute that marginal reductions in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions, or even radical ones, would have negligible impact on the Earth’s climate in the context of a rising Asia whose largest economies already produce a third of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions and whose future emissions surely will dwarf those of the United States.
Carbon dioxide is not very much like pollution as commonly understood, which is what the Clean Air Act was created to control. Smog, industrial waste, diesel smoke — it matters when and where these are found. The level of ambient carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is by definition a global question, one that EPA restrictions are insufficient to address. There has been an effort to tackle that issue globally, under the Kyoto framework, and that effort failed as various countries and institutions calculated that the economic tradeoffs involved were a poor swap. The EPA, insulated from such quotidian concerns as the economy or the American standard of living, and led by ideologues who privilege their own religious commitment to restricting U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions over the scientific and economic certainty that doing so is futile, nonetheless proposes to ride roughshod over our democratic processes and constitutional order, and impose severe costs on the U.S. economy, in order to accomplish — approximately nothing.
But empty gestures are attractive to a certain kind of green true-believer, and the Obama administration, especially its EPA, is crawling with them. Putting a check on the ideological monomania of such crusaders is one of the virtues of the democratic model of government, which is why it is essential that Congress act now to check the EPA’s ambitions and the Supreme Court’s furthering of them. For the United States to shoot itself in the economic foot as a feel-good act of environmental symbolism would be entirely pointless and unfathomably stupid — which is to say, it’s a job for Congress.