The nation's largest business group is asking U.S. EPA to hold a public debate on climate change science -- or face litigation -- as the agency prepares to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
In April, EPA said it planned to declare that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride from new automobiles and their engines contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare. The proposal, which does not include any regulations, comes in response to the Supreme Court's 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA ruling.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a 21-page petition with EPA today, asking the agency to approve an on-the-record proceeding with an independent trier of fact who would allow EPA and environmental and business groups to engage in a "credible weighing" of the scientific evidence that global warming endangers human health.
EPA has hosted two public hearings and received more than 300,000 public comments on the matter already.
"They don't have the science to support the endangerment finding," Bill Kovacs, the chamber's vice president for environment, regulatory and government affairs, said in an interview. "We can't just take their word for it."
Kovacs envisions the EPA proceeding as a modern-day "Scopes Monkey Trial," where the science of global warming -- rather than evolution versus creationism -- would be debated. The 1925 trial, which pitted prominent defense attorney Clarence Darrow against three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan, centered on the prosecution of John Scopes for violating a Tennessee law by teaching evolution in a high school classroom.
Much is at stake in the modern climate change debate. Declaring greenhouse gases as pollutants from automobiles would trigger Clean Air Act regulation of other emission sources, such as power plants and oil refineries, Kovacs said.
"An endangerment finding would make EPA the regulator of the U.S. economy," he warned.
EPA Deputy Press Secretary Brendan Gilfillan rejected the chamber's claims. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson based her proposed endangerment finding on "the soundest peer-reviewed science available, which overwhelmingly indicates that climate change presents a threat to human health and welfare," he said.
"While she knows the rigorous process would stand up to any frivolous legal challenge, the administrator doesn't think a new Scopes trial is the best way to move America forward on this issue," Gilfillan added.
Litigation is a "certainty," regardless of EPA's next move, Kovacs said.
If EPA denies the chamber's petition for climate science debate, the 3-million-member business group would have 60 days to challenge the decision, Kovacs said. The chamber would have an equal amount of time in which to challenge EPA's final endangerment finding.
EPA is reviewing the public comments and preparing the final rule, Gilfillan said.
"What we're calling for is real transparency," Kovacs said. "They have taken the position that they want integrity in science."
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 assessment pegs the range of expected global average temperature increase during the next century at 2 to 4.5 degrees Celsius, with a best estimate of 3 degrees. The consequences of a warming world include harsher heat waves, deeper floods and faster glacial melting, the scientists warned.
In today's filing with EPA, the chamber charges that "no issue should be more important in deciding whether to make an endangerment finding than the question of whether higher global temperatures will lead to higher death rates in the United States." Indeed, the business group, citing scientific data it has already submitted to EPA, contends that the IPCC's forecast temperature increases will result in lower net mortality rates in the United States.
The American Petroleum Institute and other trade groups have argued similarly in EPA filings.
"Those favoring a positive finding either ignore the data cited by the chamber and other parties who have actually examined the scientific literature in detail, or they try to divert attention from the question of whether higher temperatures will lead to increased mortality in the United States," the chamber filing concludes.
Added Kovacs: "What we're asking for is a trial of the science."
Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, characterized the chamber's analysis as "cherry picking" data.
A June 2009 report by 13 federal agencies, titled "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," does project a smaller risk of loss of life in the winter -- such as people slipping on ice or freezing to death -- in coming decades. However, warmer weather in other seasons would bring a greater risk of loss of life, Ekwurzel noted, citing the report.
"Unlike health threats caused by a particular toxin or disease pathogen, there are many ways that climate change can lead to potentially harmful health effects," the report noted. "There are direct health impacts from heat waves and severe storms, ailments caused or exacerbated by air pollution and airborne allergens, and many climate-sensitive infectious diseases."