Significant sources of legal authority for addressing climate change include:


The U.S. Supreme Court is the leading authority on the interpretation of U.S. law.  In 2007, the Supreme Court decided Massachusetts v. EPA, a case brought by 12 States and the District of Columbia, among others, to determine whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles.

The Supreme Court decided:

  1. Four greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons – are air pollutants which EPA has authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act, and
  2. EPA must decide whether these greenhouse gases “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare” or explain its reasons for being unable to form a scientific judgment.

Following the Court’s opinion, EPA found that these greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.

Clean Air Act is the principal federal law regulating “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”  The Act directs EPA, among other things, to regulate emissions of air pollutants such as greenhouse gases from new and existing stationary sources (e.g., utilities and chemical plants) and new mobile sources when the emissions “cause or contribute” to such air pollution.  EPA has published “The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act” to help the public understand the Act.

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 continues an initiative begun by President George H. Bush in 1989. The Act calls for a coordinated, comprehensive, inter-agency research program to “assist the nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” The Act defines “global change” to include alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems that may alter Earth’s capacity to sustain life. Assessments must be updated every four years; the next National Climate Assessment is due in 2014.

The Global Climate Protection Act of 1987 found greenhouse gas emissions may be substantially increasing Earth’s average temperature and, though “the consequences…may not be fully manifest until the next century,” the impact may be “irreversible.”  Calling for action “in time to protect the climate,” Congress directed EPA to propose a “coordinated national policy on global climate change,” and ordered the Secretary of State to coordinate diplomatic efforts to combat global warming.

The “Endangerment Finding is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulatory finding that combined emissions of six greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride — endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations.  Simultaneously, EPA found that emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles contribute to dangerous greenhouse gas pollution.  EPA issued both findings in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Massachusetts v. EPA and after weighing 380,000 public comments on the issue.

Executive Order 13514: “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” directs federal agencies to lead by example to: increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve water, eliminate waste, prevent pollution, and foster sustainability.  The Order also directs federal agencies to develop  plans for adapting to the impacts of climate change on their mission and operations.

Nancy Cohen, Estuary: Moods and Modes Courtesy of the artist More
Nancy Cohen, Estuary: Moods and Modes. Courtesy of the artist. More


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a nonbinding agreement among 154 nations, including the U.S., to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic [i.e., human-induced] interference with the [Earth’s] climate system.”  The convention emerged from the 1992 United Nations “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro.  President George H. Bush attended the summit and signed the convention for the U.S.; the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the treaty.

The Kyoto Protocol is a 1997 international agreement assigning mandatory greenhouse gas emission reduction targets to the 37 industrialized nations and the European community which ratified the Protocol.  The Protocol only binds developed nations on the principle that they are largely responsible for high levels of greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere over 150 years of industrial activity.  The U.S. is not a participant.  Because developing and heavily polluting nations such as China and India were not subject to binding emission reductions, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing U. S. entry into the Protocol and President Clinton did not submit the Protocol to the Senate for ratification.  Canada, originally a signatory, withdrew from the Protocol in 2011.

Nancy Cohen, Estuary: Moods and Modes (detail)
Courtesy of the artist. More

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