Reviews | Carbon is a toxic substance. We should regulate it that way.

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Due to human activity, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in the past 4 million years. We have increased the concentration of this heat-trapping gas by 50% since the industrial revolution. And carbon emissions of 36.3 billion tonnes last year set a new record.

There’s your report on the state of the fight against climate change: By any scientific measure, we’re losing.

Yet we must find a way to snatch an acceptable victory from the jaws of defeat, because the consequences of rampant climate change are no longer theoretical. Yellowstone National Park is closed, following unprecedented torrential rains that washed out roads and possibly permanently altered the landscape. Western states are suffering from a mega-drought that has made the nation’s largest reservoirs look like empty bathtubs; water rationing is inevitable. Around the world, killer summer heat waves arrived early in the spring. Sea level rise is evident in video clips of beachfront homes collapsing in the waves.

It is already too late to avoid the long-term consequences of climate change. The carbon we pumped into the atmosphere will stay there for centuries. But we can – we must – stop making the problem worse and lessen the damage we can. The punitive impacts we are seeing now are minor compared to the horrors that future generations will face, who will curse us for foreseeing disaster while refusing to prevent it.

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“We should have started acting decades ago. This is the best time,” James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate experts and former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told me last week. “The second best time is now.”

Hansen is part of a group of scientists trying a new approach to force our government to act more boldly. On Thursday, they filed a formal petition with the Environmental Protection Agency seeking to compel the EPA to regulate carbon under existing legislation, the Toxic Substances Control Act.

By law, the EPA has 90 days to respond by determining whether carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases pose “an unreasonable risk of harm to health or the environment” under the law. Toxic Substances Control Act, which was signed into law in 1976 and updated in 2016.

It was the law that was used, for example, to ban chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, whose widespread use was damaging the atmosphere’s ozone layer, which protects the earth from radiation. harmful ultraviolet rays. Since the CFCs were reduced, the ozone layer has started to regenerate.

Hansen’s other petitioners are Donn J. Viviani, a 35-year-old retired EPA scientist (whom I’ve known for years); Lise Van Susteren, psychiatrist and professor at George Washington University; John Birks, professor emeritus of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Colorado; and Richard Heede, co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute.

Deciding that carbon dioxide is a legally toxic substance would only be a first step. The EPA should formulate and implement rules that could, for example, impose a charge on carbon emissions – and also require companies to remove the carbon from the atmosphere that they have already expelled.

Using existing law and agreed science is a smart strategy. But the main obstacles to tackling climate change have always been political. The fossil fuel industry would use its vast reserves of money and influence to fight EPA carbon regulations. The Biden administration may well balk at the idea of ​​taking such a step at a time when global energy markets are boiling and American consumers are paying around $5 a gallon for gasoline. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court might be skeptical, even contemptuous, that such sweeping change could be mandated by executive rulemaking.

But it’s all there in black and white in the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was passed and amended with bipartisan support. Textualists should endeavor to explain why the words of the law do not mean what they plainly say.

You might wonder what difference this or any other dramatic action to reduce US emissions would make, given that our country is only responsible for about 13% of global carbon emissions. China emits about twice as much and is by far the biggest carbon polluter in the world.

“US action is a necessary condition” for effective international action, Viviani said. As the world’s largest economy, we are responsible for more additional carbon currently accumulating in the atmosphere than any other nation.

We paved the way for this mess. We must lead the way.

About Christian M.

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