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The EPA Endangerment Finding

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday made its long awaited announcement regarding greenhouse gases. In this post, I highlight a few of the sections of the announcement and findings that caught my attention.

Let's start with the announcement on Monday:

After a thorough examination of the scientific evidence and careful consideration of public comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that greenhouse gases (GHGs) threaten the public health and welfare of the American people. EPA also finds that GHG emissions from on-road vehicles contribute to that threat. 

GHGs are the primary driver of climate change, which can lead to hotter, longer heat waves that threaten the health of the sick, poor or elderly; increases in ground-level ozone pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses; as well as other threats to the health and welfare of Americans.

It should be noted that the statement says that GHG “threatens” the public welfare, while it is “the primary driver of climate change.” The press release relates to two specific findings which were signed by the EPA Administrator today. Those findings are:

Endangerment Finding: The Administrator finds that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)--in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

Cause or Contribute Finding: The Administrator finds that the combined emissions of these well-mixed greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles and new motor vehicle engines contribute to the greenhouse gas pollution which threatens public health and welfare.

The basis for this decision is given in three sets of documents: the findings themselves; a technical support document (TSD); and eleven volumes of comments (the list is here). I'm going to go through the first of these, a 284 page document, and pull out paragraphs that I have found of interest.

Within the findings, the EPA explains the legal framework on which it based its decision, the way it went about evaluating the evidence that it considered, and the resulting finding. In its opening statement it notes (page 8):

. . . the Administrator finds that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated both to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare.

And here the gases are specifically defined as “long-lived, well-mixed and directly emitted greenhouse gases.” The primary basis for the decision is given as assessments of the U.S. Global Climate Research Program (USGCRP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Research Council (NRC). Starting at page 9:

The Administrator reached her determination by considering both observed and projected effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, their effect on climate, and the public health and welfare risks and impacts associated with such climate change. The Administrator’s assessment focused on public health and public welfare impacts within the United States. She also examined the evidence with respect to impacts in other world regions, and she concluded that these impacts strengthen the case for endangerment to public health and welfare because impacts in other world regions can in turn adversely affect the United States.

The evidence concerning adverse air quality impacts provides strong and clear support for an endangerment finding. Increases in ambient ozone are expected to occur over broad areas of the country, and they are expected to increase serious adverse health effects in large population areas that are and may continue to be in nonattainment. The evaluation of the potential risks associated with increases in ozone in attainment areas also supports such a finding.

The impact on mortality and morbidity associated with increases in average temperatures, which increase the likelihood of heat waves, also provides support for a public health endangerment finding. There are uncertainties over the net health impacts of a temperature increase due to decreases in cold-related mortality, but some recent evidence suggests that the net impact on mortality is more likely to be adverse, in a context where heat is already the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States.

The evidence concerning how human-induced climate change may alter extreme weather events also clearly supports a finding of endangerment, given the serious adverse impacts that can result from such events and the increase in risk, even if small, of the occurrence and intensity of events such as hurricanes and floods.

Additionally, public health is expected to be adversely affected by an increase in the severity of coastal storm events due to rising sea levels.

There is some evidence that elevated carbon dioxide concentrations and climate changes can lead to changes in aeroallergens that could increase the potential for allergenic illnesses. The evidence on pathogen borne disease vectors provides directional support for an endangerment finding. The Administrator acknowledges the many uncertainties in these areas. Although these adverse effects provide some support for an endangerment finding, the Administrator is not placing primary weight on these factors.

Finally, the Administrator places weight on the fact that certain groups, including children, the elderly, and the poor, are most vulnerable to these climate-related health effects.

The evidence concerning adverse impacts in the areas of water resources and sea level rise and coastal areas provides the clearest and strongest support for an endangerment finding, both for current and future generations. Strong support is also found in the evidence concerning infrastructure and settlements, as well ecosystems and wildlife. Across the sectors, the potential serious adverse impacts of extreme events, such as wildfires, flooding, drought, and extreme weather conditions, provide strong support for such a finding.

And from page 14:

The most serious potential adverse effects are the increased risk of storm surge and flooding in coastal areas from sea level rise and more intense storms. Observed sea level rise is already increasing the risk of storm surge and flooding in some coastal areas. The conclusion in the assessment literature that there is the potential for hurricanes to become more intense (and even some evidence that Atlantic hurricanes have already become more intense) reinforces the judgment that coastal communities are now endangered by human induced climate change, and may face substantially greater risk in the future. Even if there is a low probability of raising the destructive power of hurricanes, this threat is enough to support a finding that coastal communities are endangered by greenhouse gas air pollution. In addition, coastal areas face other adverse impacts from sea level rise such as land loss due to inundation, erosion, wetland submergence, and habitat loss.

The increased risk associated with these adverse impacts also endangers public welfare, with an increasing risk of greater adverse impacts in the future.

While the impacts on net energy demand may be viewed as generally neutral for purposes of making an endangerment determination, climate change is expected to result in an increase in electricity production, especially supply for peak demand. This may be exacerbated by the potential for adverse impacts from climate change on hydropower resources as well as the potential risk of serious adverse effects on energy infrastructure from extreme events. Changes in extreme weather events threaten energy, transportation, and water resource infrastructure.

Vulnerabilities of industry, infrastructure, and settlements to climate change are generally greater in high-risk locations, particularly coastal and riverine areas, and areas whose economies are closely linked with climate-sensitive resources. Climate change will likely interact with and possibly exacerbate ongoing environmental change and environmental pressures in settlements, particularly in Alaska where indigenous communities are facing major environmental and cultural impacts on their historic lifestyles.

The above ends on page 15. Then beginning on page 16:

However, the body of evidence points towards increasing risk of net adverse impacts on U.S. food production and agriculture over time, with the potential for significant disruptions and crop failure in the future.

For the near term, the Administrator finds the beneficial impact on forest growth and productivity in certain parts of the country from elevated carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature increases to date is offset by the clear risk from the observed increases in wildfires, combined with risks from the spread of destructive pests and disease.

And moving on to page 21.

The concern now, however, is that the changes taking place in our atmosphere as a result of the well-documented buildup of greenhouse gases due to human activities are changing the climate at a pace and in a way that threatens human health, society, and the natural environment.

Some hint of future regulation may be discerned as the document progresses (page 22):

On September 15, 2009, EPA and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a National Program that would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel economy for new cars and trucks sold in the United States.

The combined EPA and NHTSA standards that make up this proposed National Program would apply to passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty passenger vehicles, covering model years 2012 through 2016. They proposed to require these vehicles to meet an estimated combined average emissions level of 250 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, equivalent to 35.5 miles per gallon (MPG) if the automobile industry were to meet this carbon dioxide level solely through fuel economy improvements. Together, these proposed standards would cut carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 950 million metric tons and 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles sold under the program (model years 2012-2016). The proposed rulemaking can be viewed at (74 FR 49454, September 28, 2009).

Much of the rest of the document is a justification of action relative to the host of comments that had been submitted. These 380,000-odd comments, on the proposed ruling, were described thusly.

A majority of the comments (approximately 370,000) were the result of mass mail campaigns, which are defined as groups of comments that are identical or very similar in form and content. Overall, about two-thirds of the mass mail comments received are supportive of the Findings and generally encouraged the Administrator both to make a positive endangerment determination and implement greenhouse gas emission regulations.

Of the mass mail campaigns in disagreement with the Proposed Findings most either oppose the proposal on economic grounds (e.g., due to concern for regulatory measures following an endangerment finding) or take issue with the proposed finding that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations endanger public health and welfare.

The recent publication of the e-mails and codes from the CRU is addressed on page 46.

Our response regarding the request to reopen the comment period due to concerns about alleged destruction of raw global surface data is discussed more fully in the Response to Comments document, Volume 11.

The commenter did not provide any compelling reason to conclude that the absence of these data would materially affect the trends in the temperature records or conclusions drawn about them in the assessment literature and reflected in the TSD. The Hadley Centre/Climate Research Unit (CRU) temperature record (referred to as HadCRUT) is just one of three global surface temperature records that EPA and the assessment literature refer to and cite. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also produce temperature records, and all three temperature records have been extensively peer reviewed. Analyses of the three global temperature records produce essentially the same long-term trends as noted in the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) (2006) report "Temperature Trends in the Lower Atmosphere," IPCC (2007), and NOAA's study5 "State of the Climate in 2008". Furthermore, the commenter did not demonstrate that the allegedly destroyed data would materially alter the HadCRUT record or meaningfully hinder its replication.

The document further notes (page 56):

First, the Administrator is required to protect public health and welfare, but she is not asked to wait until harm has occurred. EPA must be ready to take regulatory action to prevent harm before it occurs.

Section 202(a)(1) requires the Administrator to “anticipate” “danger” to public health or welfare. The Administrator is thus to consider both current and future risks. Second, the Administrator is to exercise judgment by weighing risks, assessing potential harms, and making reasonable projections of future trends and possibilities.

It follows that when exercising her judgment the Administrator balances the likelihood and severity of effects. This balance involves a sliding scale; on one end the severity of the effects may be of great concern, but the likelihood low, while on the other end the severity may be less, but the likelihood high. Under either scenario, the Administrator is permitted to find endangerment. If the harm would be catastrophic, the Administrator is permitted to find endangerment even if the likelihood is small.

The Administrator recognizes that the context for this action is unique. There is a very large and comprehensive base of scientific information that has been developed over many years through a global consensus process involving numerous scientists from many countries and representing many disciplines. She also recognizes that there are varying degrees of uncertainty across many of these scientific issues. It is in this context that she is exercising her judgment and applying the statutory framework.

The reason for the ruling is tied to the Massachusetts case (page 68):

As the Supreme Court made clear in Massachusetts v. EPA, EPA’s judgment in making the endangerment and contribution findings is constrained by the statute, and EPA is to decide these issues based solely on the scientific and other evidence relevant to that decision. EPA may not "rest” on reasoning divorced from the statutory text," and instead EPA’s exercise of judgment must relate to whether an air pollutant causes or contributes to air pollution that endangers. Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. at 532.

and (page 79):

The Administrator has determined that the body of scientific evidence compellingly supports her endangerment finding.

This evidence is included in a technical support document (TSD) including the assessment of the USGCRP. It imposes a standard on this information, and seeks to address some of the criticism that has arisen since the word on Climategate got out. Moving to page 86:

Fourth, these assessment reports undergo a rigorous and exacting standard of peer review by the expert community, as well as rigorous levels of U.S. government review and acceptance. Individual studies that appear in scientific journals, even if peer reviewed, do not go through as many review stages, nor are they reviewed and commented on by as many scientists. The review processes of the IPCC, USGCRP, and NRC (explained in fuller detail in the TSD and the Response to Comments document, Volume 1) provide EPA with strong assurance that this material has been well vetted by both the climate change research community and by the U.S. government. These assessments therefore essentially represent the U.S. government’s view of the state of knowledge on greenhouse gases and climate change.

But it does note

In addition to the significant reasons discussed above for relying on and placing primary weight on these assessment reports, EPA has been a very active part of the U.S. government climate change research enterprise, and has taken an active part in the review, writing, and approval of these assessments. EPA was the lead agency for three significant reports under the USGCRP, and recently completed an assessment addressing the climate change impacts on U.S. air quality—a report on which the TSD heavily relies for that particular issue. EPA was also involved in review of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, and in particular took part in the approval of the summary for policymakers for the Working Group II Volume, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

Page 106

Thus, commenters misunderstand the role that international effects played in the proposal. The Administrator is not evaluating the impact of international effects on populations outside the United States; she is considering what impact these international effects could have on the U.S. population. That is fully consistent with the CAA's stated purpose of protecting the health and welfare of this nation’s population.

An additional parameter of the endangerment analysis is the timeframe. The Administrator’s view is that the timeframe over which vulnerabilities, risks, and impacts are considered should be consistent with the timeframe over which greenhouse gases, once emitted, have an effect on climate.

Thus the relevant time frame is decades to centuries for the primary greenhouse gases of concern. Therefore, in addition to reviewing recent observations, the underlying science upon which the Administrator is basing her findings generally considers the next several decades —the time period out to around 2100, and for certain impacts, the time period beyond 2100.

Together the six well-mixed greenhouse gases constitute the largest anthropogenic driver of climate change. Of the total anthropogenic heating effect caused by the accumulation of the six well-mixed greenhouse gases plus other warming agents (that do not meet all of the Administrator’s criteria that pertain to the six greenhouse gases) since pre-industrial times, the combined heating effect of the six well-mixed greenhouses is responsible for roughly 75 percent, and it is expected that this share may grow larger over time, as discussed below.

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. Global mean surface temperatures have risen by 0.74°C (1.3ºF) (±0.18°C) over the last 100 years. Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries.

There is this specific comment about recent discussion of the world no longer warming at an increasing rate (page 124).

Though most of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last decade in all available datasets, the rate of warming has, for a short time in the Hadley Center record, slowed. However, the NOAA and NASA trends do not show the same marked slowdown for the 1999-2008 period.

Year-to-year fluctuations in natural weather and climate patterns can produce a period that does not follow the long-term trend. Thus, each year may not necessarily be warmer than every year before it, though the long-term warming trend continues. The scientific evidence is compelling that elevated concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are the root cause of recently observed climate change. . . .

Climate model simulations suggest natural forcing alone (e.g., changes in solar irradiance) cannot explain the observed warming.

The first line of evidence arises from our basic physical understanding of the effects of changing concentrations of greenhouse gases, natural factors, and other human impacts on the climate system. The second line of evidence arises from indirect, historical estimates of past climate changes that suggest that the changes in global surface temperature over the last several decades are unusual. The third line of evidence arises from the use of computer-based climate models to simulate the likely patterns of response of the climate system to different forcing mechanisms (both natural and anthropogenic).

The claim that natural internal variability or known natural external forcings can explain most (more than half) of the observed global warming of the past 50 years is inconsistent with the vast majority of the scientific literature, which has been synthesized in several assessment reports.

Interestingly, for the United States (page 127)

United States temperatures also warmed during the 20th and into the 21st century; temperatures are now approximately 0.7°C (1.3°F) warmer than at the start of the 20th century, with an increased rate of warming over the past 30 years. Both the IPCC and CCSP reports attributed recent North American warming to elevated greenhouse gas concentrations. The CCSP (2008g) report finds that for North America, "more than half of this warming [for the period 1951-2006] is likely the result of human-caused greenhouse gas forcing of climate change."

The finding also speaks to other evidence (page 128):

There is strong evidence that global sea level gradually rose in the 20th century and is currently rising at an increased rate. It is very likely that the response to anthropogenic forcing contributed to sea level rise during the latter half of the 20th century. It is not clear whether the increasing rate of sea level rise is a reflection of short-term variability or an increase in the longer-term trend.

Nearly all of the Atlantic Ocean shows sea level rise during the last 50 years with the rate of rise reaching a maximum (over 2 mm per year) in a band along the U.S. east coast running east-northeast.

Satellite data since 1979 show that annual average Arctic sea ice extent has shrunk by 4.1 percent per decade.

The size and speed of recent Arctic summer sea ice loss is highly anomalous relative to the previous few thousands of years.

It will be interesting to see how this prediction falls out (page 132).

All of the United States is very likely to warm during this century, and most areas of the United States are expected to warm by more than the global average. The largest warming is projected to occur in winter over northern parts of Alaska. In western, central and eastern regions of North America, the projected warming has less seasonal variation and is not as large, especially near the coast, consistent with less warming over the oceans.

And a related issue on page 137:

. . . the Administrator recognizes that black carbon is an important climate forcing agent and takes very seriously the emerging science on black carbon’s contribution to global climate change in general and the high rates of observed climate change in the Arctic in particular.

As noted in the Proposed Findings, EPA has various pending petitions under the CAA calling on the Agency to make an endangerment finding and regulate black carbon emissions.

And page 140:

EPA plans to further evaluate the issues of emissions of water that are implicated in the formation of contrails and also changes in water vapor due to local irrigation.

And they emphasize on page 151:

We received many comments suggesting global temperatures have stopped warming. The commenters base this conclusion on temperature trends over only the last decade. While there have not been strong trends over the last seven to ten years in global surface temperature or lower troposphere temperatures measured by satellites, this pause in warming should not be interpreted as a sign that the Earth is cooling or that the science supporting continued warming is in error. Year-to-year variability in natural weather and climate patterns make it impossible to draw any conclusions about whether the climate system is warming or cooling from such a limited analysis.

Historical data indicate short-term trends in long-term time series occasionally run counter to the overall trend. All three major global surface temperature records show a continuation of long-term warming.

They do note, however on page 153:

A number of commenters argue that the warmth of the late 20th century is not unusual relative to the past 1,000 years. They maintain temperatures were comparably warm during the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) centered around 1000 A.D. We agree there was a Medieval Warm Period in many regions but find the evidence is insufficient to assess whether it was globally coherent.

Our review of the available evidence suggests that Northern Hemisphere temperatures in the MWP were probably between 0.1 deg C and 0.2 deg C below the 1961-1990 mean and significantly below the level shown by instrumental data after 1980. However, we note significant uncertainty in the temperature record prior to 1600 A.D.

As one comes to some of the predictions that the literature has made on future climate effects the document paints a picture of a possible future. As such, in times to come it will be interesting to see how things turn out. But I will stop the abstracting here. At some future time I will go through some of the other documentation but these were the bits that most caught my eye on a first go through.

Editorial Notes: Many thoughtful comments follow this article on the Oil Drum. -KS

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