As has been the case during the last seven years, the real activity on environmental issues is coming from the states.
The latest salvo in this battle is a lawsuit filed in May by 12 states, the District of Columbia and New York City. The suit, according to the Associated Press, alleges that federal ozone standards are weak and will not "protect the elderly, children and people with respiratory problems."
A bevy of environmental and health groups-Earthjustice, American Lung Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, National Parks and Conservation Association and the Appalachian Mountain Club-also are suing.
The suit claims that the federal Environmental Protection Agency's new ozone standards, issued in March, "disregard(ed) the overwhelming evidence and the advice of respected experts," Bernadette Toomey, president of the American Lung Association, told the AP.
The new standards now require "that airborne concentrations be lowered from a maximum 84 parts per billion to 75 parts per billion," though an "EPA science advisory board-and most health experts-had recommended a limit of 60 to 70 parts per billion to adequately protect the elderly, people with respiratory problems and children."
In addition, the agency "did not go as far as the science panel had recommended in setting a separate standard to protect the environment, especially plants, forests and wildlife, from smog," a standard supported by environmental groups.
David Baron, an attorney for Earthjustice, told the AP that the Clean Air Act "requires EPA to adopt standards strong enough to protect our lungs and our environment" and that the agency was not living up to its responsibilities.
The lawsuit follows several others that challenged the Bush administration's inaction on the environment by granting more power to the states to address the problems of greenhouse gas and other air pollution.
California has taken the lead on this, but a dozen or so states have regularly joined with the Golden State in adopting clean-air rules that are stricter than anything being pushed by Washington.
The Bush administration has spent the past six-plus years rewriting environmental rules to benefit industry, weakening some regulations and ignoring others. The result has been stagnation at the federal level and a worsening of air quality. A National Resources Defense Council study, for instance, issued in September said that air quality in 10 Eastern cities is likely to get worse, with the number of unsafe air days increasing if global warming continues.
That's why states like California, Vermont, New Jersey, Maryland and others have stepped into the fray. California acted first, passing rules in 2002 that require a 30% cut in the emission of carbon dioxide gas from cars and light trucks by 2016 and then adopting tough new fuel-efficiency standards last year. The other states followed, understanding that, as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said earlier this year, they had to step in "to fill a void created by the inaction of the administration of President Bush."
This state-by-state approach has the potential to generate the momentum necessary to create the single standard that the auto industry says it would prefer, but has worked tirelessly to defeat over the years. As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out in September, 12 states already have adopted the California standard while another six are waiting for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to approve a waiver for the California plan, requested in 2005, that would validate not only the California rules but similar regulations in place in other states.
That, in turn, could put pressure on Congress to craft a more comprehensive approach to energy use that would boost fuel-economy standards to 35 miles per gallon or more by 2020, cap emissions, fund mass transit and alternative energy sources and more generally wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels.
It is a model that has worked before, as the Monitor pointed out, forcing the auto industry to install seat belts and air bags and accept mileage standards in the first place.
With the federal government still mired in its environmental apathy-at least until January-state action appears to be the best hope we have to reverse the more damaging effects of climate change.
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in central New Jersey.
See his blog, Channel Surfing, at www.kaletblog.com.
From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2008