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MOGC reports from UN climate change conference

December 2009

“Endangerment finding” injects hopes in climate talks
Dec. 8, 2009

Following is the second report on the Copenhagen climate change conference, written by MOGC staff member Kathy McNeely. Read her first report here.

Country positions remain divided here in Copenhagen as the climate negotiations continue. However, news about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “endangerment finding” injects hope into the process. 

In the 2007 case “Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gas emission are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act; the Court held that the EPA administrator would have to determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution that endangers public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision.

Yesterday, Dec. 7, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced this “endangerment finding,” which states that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health and that science overwhelmingly shows greenhouse gas concentrations at unprecedented levels due to human activity.

The “endangerment finding” essentially triggers a requirement that the federal government regulate fossil fuel emissions under the Clean Air Act ­ even without new legislation from Congress. Under this new finding, any U.S. citizen can press the legal case for administrative action. This decision provides a way for President Obama to ensure that the United States can enforce its commitments to reduce carbon emissions through the EPA in the event that the Congressional climate bill does not pass before the new international agreement is ready for final approval.

The timing of this announcement during the first day of climate negotiations in Copenhagen­ is of critical importance. It indicates to the world that the U.S. is serious about following through on promises to cut carbon emissions whether or not Congress passes legislation in a timely manner. This can and hopefully will have a profound impact on the outcome of the climate negotiations and could give momentum to prospects for a climate bill in the Senate.

The Obama administration is committed to cutting carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020 ­ based on a 2005 emissions. This amounts to about a three percent cut in emissions based on 1990 levels (the baseline year that the rest of the world is using). More importantly, President Obama is committed to putting the U.S. on course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 83 percent by 2050. International negotiators are wary of these promises. Aside from the fact that they represent smaller cuts than other countries are willing to make, negotiators question whether Congress will follow through on enacting legislation.

Congressional response to this move must be watched since some members of Congress wish to use climate legislation to gut the Clean Air Act. The Energy and Climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives includes provisions that weaken the EPA’s power to enforce the Clean Air Act. Though we are feeling hopeful today, no matter what happens here in Copenhagen, we will have our work cut out for us in the coming year to ensure that the United States is fully on board in safeguarding the world’s right to clean air!

Opening session at "Hopenhagen"
December 7, 2009

Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns’ staff members Kathy McNeely and Sr. Ann Braudis are attending the UN’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark this week. Below is the first of what we hope are periodic updates from Kathy and Ann during this important gathering.

Kathy McNeely writes: I have just listened to the welcoming session where dignitaries from Denmark greeted delegates and non-governmental organizations to the conference. Throughout the city there are signs everywhere welcoming conference participants to “Hopenhagen.” The mayor of Copenhagen, Ms. Ritt Bjerregaard, talked about this city holding the hopes of the world that when delegates leave, they will “leave the planet cleaner and safer.”

Non-governmental organizations like Maryknoll are welcome here because when nations agree to a plan, it will really depend on civil society to carry it through. I wrote previously [on Kathy’s personal blog] on how over-consumption overshadows our lives seen not only in the food we eat, but in the way that we are expected to buy so that we can buoy the economy. But this over-consumption costs. It takes its toll on people who are forced to take lower pay because we expect the products we buy to be inexpensive. It takes its toll on Earth, because we assume that we can keep extracting minerals, oil, trees and other natural resources to keep pace with the demands of department store shelves. It takes toll on our souls as we learn hard lessons about what is truly important and that consumer goods do not bring meaning and happiness to our lives.

I am here because very little of the discussion around climate change has included any of the above issues. But we at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns believe that if we do not begin to address our over-consumption, we have no chance of treating the planet and its people justly. What we really need is a shift in consciousness and we are here to remind delegates and others of what is at stake at this important United Nations meeting.

“Hopenhagen” is an appropriate setting for this meeting. There is much to learn from Denmark’s example in working towards making itself carbon neutral. Most people in Copenhagen get around riding bicycles and walking and taking a supremely efficient metro train throughout the city. Windmills and solar power are everywhere. A low carbon heating grid supplies 70 percent of the heat in homes in Copenhagen. Bottled water is hard to find here. Tap water is all the rage, and used clothing stores and organic foods are abundant.

I plan to write throughout the week about my experiences here in “Hopenhagen” and about the first week of the United Nations climate change conference.

Click here to read the Maryknoll community's latest statement on the effect of the global economy on the world's ecology / Also in espanol.

Click here to read a new statement on the intersection of faith-economy-ecology endorsed by many Catholic orders and other Christian groups in the U.S. Organizational endorsements are still accepted.


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