WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (IPS) -- Amid growing anger among environmentalists over the record and intentions of President George W. Bush, three major U.S. environmental groups said Thursday they are suing his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to curb global warming.
The lawsuit by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) charges the EPA with violating the 1977 Clear Air Act by failing to limit air pollution caused by automobiles that "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare".
Despite growing impacts of global warming on human health and the environment, the three groups charged, the EPA has steadfastly refused to control automobile emissions, which contribute to global warming.
"It's time for the Bush administration to get its head out of the sand," charged Joseph Mendelson, CTA's legal director. "The EPA stalling tactics are doing real damage in the fight against global warming."
The lawsuit marks the latest expression of rising frustration on the part of environmental activists over the administration's failure to act, despite a report by its own scientists last June that concluded that the burning of fossil fuels for industry and automobiles was contributing heavily to the climate change that will itself wreak havoc on natural ecosystems throughout the United States.
Environmentalists also fear future administration plans, particularly now that Republicans have gained control of both houses of Congress. Last year, much of the administration's energy plan, particularly its hopes of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling by U.S. energy companies, was held up by the Democratic majority in the Senate.
But Republican control of Congress should make it much easier for Bush to relax existing environmental laws and regulations over the coming two years, at the behest of energy and automobile companies and electrical utilities that contributed heavily to his presidential campaign in 2000.
In the Senate, for example, the new chairmen dealing with energy and the environment both support drilling in ANWR and have among the upper chamber's worst voting records on environmental protection.
In his first move since the elections, Bush proposed a substantial loosening of federal regulations under the Clean Air Act two weeks ago to permit old coal-fired power plants to upgrade their facilities without requiring them to install new anti-pollution equipment, as they must now do.
While the administration insisted that the change would encourage investment that would eventually result in cleaner air, environmentalists blasted the proposals as a major step back in the fight against air pollution, and a number of leading Democrats called for EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to resign her post in protest.
Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey, has long urged Bush to toughen regulations governing the Clean Air Act and even to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the international accord that requires industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions some seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States currently accounts for about 25 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.
But Whitman has been largely sidelined by the administration. She even avoided appearing personally to announce the power-plant proposals as she would normally do, issuing a statement through her spokesperson instead.
Thursday's lawsuit was motivated by the EPA's failure to respond to a formal petition submitted to it three years ago that demanded the regulation of global warming pollutants under the Clear Air Act.
The EPA subsequently received some 50,000 comments on the petition, the vast majority of which strongly agreed that global warming should be addressed under those provisions of the Clean Air Act that require it to regulate air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare.
Yet, 18 months after the public-comment period closed, the EPA has yet to offer a formal response to the petition, let alone to enact rules regulating greenhouse-gas emissions as requested by the petitioners.
According to the lawsuit, which cites the government's own studies about possible impacts of global warming on ecosystems and human health, climate change is responsible for unstable weather patterns, floods, droughts, and outbreaks of tropical diseases, including the West Nile virus that raged through much of the eastern United States last summer.
Scientists says warming, if left unchecked, will cause potentially catastrophic rises in sea level, the melting of the polar icecaps, and the loss of unique ecosystems around the world.
"Under the Bush administration, the EPA has found time to weaken or threaten many crucial environmental protections that Americans take for granted," according to David Bookbinder, an attorney with the Sierra Club. "But it can't find time to get serious about the most pressing environmental problem in the world's history."
The lawsuit coincides with the launch this week of the administration's first phase of its strategy to deal with climate change, a meeting of hundreds of scientists here to map out a research plan designed to better assess the problem and more accurately predict the effects of certain policy changes.
But environmentalists and many of the scientists taking part in the exercise have said enough is known about the threat posed by global warming to warrant a decision to cap, if not reduce, U.S. emissions immediately.
"The Bush administration is asking for five more years of studies while the world is warming and regular people will pay the price," said Gary Cook, climate coordinator for Greenpeace.
"We are asking the courts to intervene and order the EPA to enforce U.S. environmental laws and take action to address global warming.
- 100 Climate Justice Initiative