The only thing surprising about the Environmental Protection Agency's official "endangerment finding," that growing concentrations of greenhouse gases "in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations," is the timing.
What took the EPA so long? President Obama asked the EPA to revisit the issue, which George Bush's EPA had been stonewalling, in his first week in office. In April, the EPA announced its preliminary decision that greenhouse gases could be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The writing on this wall was obvious the day Obama was elected.
The usual industry flunkies are screaming. U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue is looking "forward to working with the government to ensure we don't stifle our economic recovery."
But the prospect that the EPA is going to start telling power plants and refineries to clean up their act, today, are minimal. Even if a cap-and-trade plan was enacted by Congress, it wouldn't take effect for several years, by which point the U.S. presumably will no longer be mired in a deep recession. (And if it still is, then all bets are off.) The endangerment finding will sit in the administration's back pocket until then, potentially useful as negotiating leverage if a climate bill ever gets any momentum in the Senate, but not likely to be deployed until the economic situation has dramatically improved.
Will it impress anyone in Copenhagen? The endangerment finding will make for good headlines, and will give Obama something to tout in Denmark, and, perhaps most important, it is concrete proof that Obama is not George Bush. But will it encourage China or India to commit to hard CO2 reductions? Not very likely. The U.S. government will have to do something more than make a "finding" to make a difference.