Climate change a threat to health, EPA finds

Washington Post

Climate change will pose “substantial” health threats including heat waves, hurricanes and pathogens in coming decades, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.

“It is very likely” that more people will die during extremely hot periods in future years, with the elderly, the poor and those in inner cities at the highest risk, an EPA report found. Other possible dangers include more powerful hurricanes, shrinking supplies of fresh water in the West, and the increased spread of diseases contracted through food and water.

Last week, the EPA effectively decided not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, at least not until after the Bush administration leaves office.

A former EPA official told a House panel this week that senior White House officials and several Cabinet members supported regulating the emissions before the White House changed course and barred the EPA from concluding that they endangered public welfare.


In an interview behind closed doors Tuesday, former EPA Deputy Associate Administrator Jason Burnett told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that President Bush’s deputy chief of staff for policy, Joel Kaplan, originally signed off on the decision to regulate emissions from both vehicles and stationary sources such as power plants and refineries.

The decision came in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling instructing the administration to determine whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

“There was a general belief that moving forward with a challenge and establishing a precedent in channeling regulation would serve the country better than leaving the challenge to the next administration,” Burnett said in the interview, according to a transcript obtained by the Washington Post. “The chief of staff’s office then appears to have changed its mind.”

“Today typifies the climate-change schizophrenia in the Bush administration,” Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who leads the House panel, said in a statement. “On one hand, government scientists are saying that global warming poses grave threats to our health and our welfare, and on the other hand [there] are White House political hacks following the oil industry’s bidding to do nothing.”

The EPA report Thursday was less notable for its warnings -- similar problems have been predicted by other scientists and by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- than for its source.

The Bush administration has resisted concluding that warming temperatures will harm human health. But in Thursday’s report, that was unmistakably the conclusion.

“We . . . anticipate substantial human health impacts,” the document said.

In the West, it found, changing weather patterns could thin the snow packs that feed rivers, affecting both hydroelectric dams and water supplies.

In coastal areas, it could bring sea-level rise that eats away at dry land and storm surges that can wash land away in a flash.

In Washington and other Eastern cities, the report said, a warmer climate is likely to produce more bad-air days, since heat speeds up the process by which exhaust byproducts are cooked into smog.

The report also found that warming temperatures are likely to mean more periods of sustained summer heat.

“It’s going to be hotter; it’s going to be hotter sooner in the year than it was in the past,” said Kristie Ebi, an Alexandria, Va.-based consultant and one of the report’s authors.

The report was prepared under the EPA’s leadership but released by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, which coordinates research among several federal agencies.

Joel Scheraga of the EPA’s Global Change Research Program said there was no political interference in either the findings of the report or the timing of its release.

“The answer is unequivocally ‘No,’ ” he said.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said there was no conflict between the warnings in the report and the agency’s conclusion last week that regulation should be put off.

The problem, he said, is that the agency is still searching for the correct way to address the issue.

“Climate change is a serious problem that our nation needs to address. But we need to address it correctly,” Shradar said.

Last Friday, the EPA announced that it was soliciting comments on the idea of regulating greenhouse gases under the federal Clean Air Act.

But at the same time it released a lengthy preamble, with messages from EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson and four other Cabinet members, saying that this idea was ill-advised.

Burnett said that this, too, was ordered by administration officials: “We were told . . . that the [document] should not establish a path forward or a framework for regulation, but should emphasize the complexity of the challenge.”

Burnett also told the panel that senior EPA officials met with representatives from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Petrochemicals and Refiners Assn., who argued Bush shouldn’t undermine his legacy by regulating greenhouse gases.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Thursday that the EPA administrator had chosen his course on his own.

“Steve Johnson, as he has said repeatedly, and in sworn testimony, made his own decision,” Fratto said.

“And so whatever anyone’s views were at that time are fairly irrelevant because the administrator chose to go a different route.”