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Tuesday, March 24, Noon ET

EPA: Global Warming Endangers Health

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Frank O'Donnell
Clean Air Watch
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; 12:00 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a proposal to the White House Friday finding that global warming is endangering the public's health and welfare, according to several sources, a move that could have far-reaching implications for the nation's economy and environment.

"This is historic news," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads the public watchdog group Clean Air Watch. "It will set the stage for the first-ever national limits on global warming pollution. And it is likely to help light a fire under Congress to get moving."

O'Donnell will be online Tuesday, March 24, at Noon ET to discuss the issue.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

On Monday, Bill Kovacs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce discussed the other side of the issue: EPA: Global Warming Endangers Health (Online Chat, March 23)


Frank O'Donnell: Welcome to today's discussion.

I am Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, and I will be happy to discuss the proposed EPA finding that global warming poses a threat to health and the environment.


New York, N.Y.: I know you can't speak for EPA or the administration, but does this seem more an effort to give Congress motivation to pass cap-and-trade legislation ASAP? Is this a fail-safe in case Congress does not act, or is there an established group of regulators/lawmakers in Washington that say the Clean Air Act is a better avenue than new legislation?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for understanding that I do not speak for the EPA and am presenting my interpretation of what is happening.

Things are basically happening on two tracks: within the executive branch, and in Congress.

Assuming that the EPA does go ahead with its endangerment finding (if it doesn't, that would suggest political sabotage), it would reduce the pressure to compromise with industry in Congress.

President Obama and his administration have wisely argued that the best approach is for Congress to adopt binding limits on carbon pollution, to require industry to purchase carbon permits through an auction, and to return the bulk of the proceeds to the public.

But coal-power interests have basically signaled they will attempt to derail anything in Congress, unless the lawmakers give them hundreds of billions of dollars worth of carbon permits. In other words, the big polluters most responsible for the problem are seeking an ungodly ransom. They act as if they, not the public, own the sky.

While the Clean Air Act as currently written is a blunt tool for dealing with climate, it is still a potentially good tool, and could be used to promote progress.

So if the coal crowd continues to dish out campaign contributions and impede action on Capitol Hill -- and Congress itself gets bogged down in the usual back-room deal cutting instead of moving ahead with Obama's 100 percent auction approach -- the Clean Air Act could be a crucial backstop. Through it, we could start requiring reductions from the biggest sources of global warming -- electric power plants and motor vehicles.

Maybe then the opponents of progress in Congress would finally see the light.


Manassas, Va.: What science is the finding based on? Has it been peer reviewed?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for the question. I believe the proposed findings are based on a survey of existing scientific literature, including the extensive work by the United Nations scientific panel.

It will be subject to a very public process: EPA will accept comments from anyone who wishes to comment. That should help produce a robust final product some months down the road.


New York, N.Y.: Since global warming does not exist, how can it affect our health?

Since CO2 is essential to all growth in the world, and anthropogenic emissions recycle two or more times annually, how can you honestly call it pollution?

If you reduce CO2 emissions significantly what would happen? All animal life (that's all of us) life would be dead.

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for your question.

I doubt that many credible scientists would agree with the assertion that global warming does not exist. About a year ago, I was on a televised panel discussion with an industry lobbyist who readily agreed the planet is getting warmer. He said that is very clear, and that the issue is what to do about it. I agree completely with him.

As to your question about health, the EPA scientists have noted that climate change is expected to lead to increases in regional ozone pollution, with associated risks in respiratory infection, aggravation of asthma, and premature death. This is consistent with the findings of the United Nations scientific panel that had studied the issue.

I will leave it up to the scientists to respond to the interesting thought that "all animal life" would die if CO2 emissions drop, but I would note that many people did live years ago when atmospheric CO2 levels were at the levels being targeted by reputable scientists.


Anonymous: Mr. O'Donnell:

Has the EPA considered the facts from California on what it anticipates from global warming, and is in fact already experiencing? I refer to the recent major upswing in the incidence and severity of wildfires that's been documented. Also, how will the the EPA's finding that global warming endangers public health and welfare impact the anticipated ruling on the so-called "California standard" to regulate CO2 global warming pollution from mobile source tailpipes? Thank you, Mr. O'Donnell

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you. I believe the EPA is looking at all the facts, including the severe environmental impacts that global warming is exacting on California.

As for the California car issue, I am not a lawyer, so take this as a non-lawyer's best effort: California is seeking to exercise its rights under the Clean Air Act to limit pollution from motor vehicles. By making the so-called endangerment finding, the EPA will be declaring that global warming emissions can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. That should bolster California's legal case significantly. By the way, Clean Air Watch completely agrees with California in this matter.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Simple question: is the earth warmer or cooler today than it was seven years ago?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for your question. I believe the scientists would tell you that temperatures can and do fluctuate year by year to some degree. For example, I believe an El Nino effect boosted temperatures seven years ago.

But the long-term trend is very evident: the earth is getting warmer.


Freising, Germany: It's hard not to believe that irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in California, the American Southwest and Mediterranean, or anywhere where foodstuff is grown or raised around to world, will NOT adversely affect the health of people worldwide. China, for instance, has shown little interest in combating Global Warming, even though their own water supplies will eventually dry up. Do you think that the U.S. is prepared to lead the way in this respect?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank your for the question.

Global warming is obviously a worldwide problem.

Our hope and expectation is that if the US provides leadership, the rest of the world will follow.

We do know that without US leadership, we will not be able to effectively deal with the crisis.


Rockville, Md.: I expect a warmer Earth wil have longer growing seasons and perhaps more productive plants. I expect less starvation and perhaps more managed crops. Is not that good?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you. It's a good question.

As I understand it from my reading over the years, there will be some pluses to global warming in some specific cases.

However, the overall impact is expected to be extremely negative. The recent UN report about projected rise in sea levels is pretty sobering, unless you think it doesn't matter that hundreds of millions of people might be displaced. That sort of development is why a group of military officers last year warned that global warming poses security risks, not just environmental risks.


Tecumseh, Mich.: Based on this report, how do you think it will impact what gets passed through the House and Senate?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for the question.

I do think the EPA activities could affect action in Congress. As you may know from a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, there are literally thousands of lobbyists registered to lobby on global warming. With so many interests involved, congressional stalemate is always a possibility.

We think that the Obama administration, which has said it would like Congress to act on this issue, can remind the lawmakers that if they sit on their hands, the EPA will move forward. We also hope that making it clear that EPA has authority to deal with this issue under existing law will weaken the bargaining position of the corporate lobbyists, many of whom are already trying to undermine the Obama approach.


Tecumseh, Michigan: Does the EPA report take into account how global warming is not only endangering human health and welfare but also animal health and welfare (for example: fish, birds, deer, bears, etc.)?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you. The whole EPA proposed finding has not been made public yet, so I can't cite it for details.

However, I can tell you this: during the recent Bush administration, the EPA experts had determined that global warming posed a threat to what is known as "welfare" -- a broad category that includes damage to the environment and wildlife.

There are reasons to belive (from a leaked summary published by Greenwire) that the new EPA proposal will repeat that warming, but will also include a new warning that global warming poses a risk to public health -- for example, by increasing smog levels, which are affected by temperature.


Needham, Mass.: Climate scientists believe that the drier climate of the Southwest is contributing to the intensity of the forest fires; if you followed the fires in Southeastern Australia a few months ago, you saw how fast those fires were moving, so fast that many people were burned alive in their cars trying to escape.

Frank O'Donnell: Yes, thank you.

I happened to be live on Australian radio this morning discusssing the issue, and I can tell you the folks there are very aware of the risk of fire.

I believe this phenomenon is further reason why we need to deal with the global warming crisis now.


San Jose, Costa Rica: How seriously did/does the EPA take the body of scientists and others who are skeptical about manmade CO2's influence on climate and/or indeed that the world is warming? That recent warming and the current cooling are no more than normal oscillations driven by natural causes?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for your question.

Having been an observer of these matters for more than 35 years, I have a great deal of respect for the honesty and integrity of the EPA's scientists.

I am sure they will look at all the evidence as they prepare a final finding.


Berryville, Va.: What, exactly, do the global warming deniers think the motivation is for global warming proponents to be making up the whole controversy? I find it hard to believe that there is a conspiracy to control warming pollutants, but maybe I am missing something. Thanks.

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you -- that's a good question!

It's probably not for me to speculate on someone's motives, but I would note that quite a few of the "deniers" in Congress receive large campaign contributions from corporations that seek to affect the outcome of actions in Congress.

We took a look, for example, at the recent contributions of Duke Energy, one of the most outspoken opponents of President Obama's plan, and found that Duke had contributed to some of the biggest congressional "deniers," including Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Congressman Joe Barton of Texas. See more athttp://www.jimrogerswantsyourmoney.com/dukepac.html


Needham, Mass.: Even if CO2 did not warm the atmosphere, you have to breathe it out from your bloodstream. Since the transfer from the blood to the air in your lungs is by osmosis, it means that the concentration of CO2 in your blood has to be higher than that in the air. As the CO2 in your blood rises, it makes it more acidic (carbonic acid, like in a soda). Currently, human blood averages around a pH of 7.4, but as the CO2 rises in the air to around 650 ppm, it will generate a pH of around 7, right between alkaline (as now) and acidic. The body's systems did not evolve to operate in an acidic environment. And many effects will occur before that level. Scientists have estimated that a lifetime 24/7 exposure to a CO2 environment of 426 ppm will be toxic.

See: Health effects of increase in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Current Science, June 25, 2006)

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for pointing out the article. I am not sure I can add anything to that at this point.


Katy, Tex.: Perhaps the public will be more sympathetic to the Coal Industries argument when they are hit with significant increases in their bills due to this transfer of funding from bad (cheap) to good (expensive) energy generators.

Then what? We all get bailouts to pay our electrical providers?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for the question.

I should point out that the so-called cap and dividend plan (reportedly to be embodied in upcoming legislation by Congressman Van Hollen of Maryland) would entail giving rebates to people, with the money coming from a national auction (companies would have to buy the rights to spew out carbon). This seems like a much better idea than giving away carbon permits free to polluting industries.


I'm L8: If the winters are not cold enough out west to kill pine bark beetles (that are now killing all of the pines) will our weather become warm enough not to kill mosquitoes and ticks?

Will we see a plethora of invertebrate transmited diseases like yellow fever, dengue, or malaria in the u.s. including the mid- Atlantic?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for the question.

I am not sure I can speak specifically to the mid-Atlantic, but I can tell you that the EPA has tentatively concluded that global warming generally will bring expanded ranges of vector-borne and tick-borne diseases.


I expect less starvation and perhaps more managed crops. : More crops = more people

You have to think about what Malthus wrote. There will also be an increase in plant pests since warmer weather won't kill off pests from season to season.

Though if our fertile land turns to sand as Ed Norton predicted in 'strange days on planet earth' in China, there will be less land to plant crops that would take advantage of longer growing seasons.

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you. The EPA is certainly concerned about the potential increase in plant pests. But, of course, that is only one of numerous concerns with global warming.


D.C.: To what extent and in what ways is the meeting in December of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change driving the domestic agenda?

Also, in what ways do you think the administration will try to address a) the low amount of political will to act and/or b) the high amount of public skepticism about climate change despite the overwhelming scientific certainty?

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you. I can't speak for the Obama administration or Congress, but I believe that all our government leaders are aware of the upcoming talks.

They are also aware that the prior administration failed to provide international leadership on this issue, and that the rest of the world is looking to see what the US is thinking.

That doesn't mean all the political issues will be resolved by December. But I do think that leaders both within the administration and Congress will want to send a strong signal to the rest of the world that the current US government hopes to lead, not sit on the sidelines.

As for the second part of the question, I would expect the administration to continue linking action on global warming to the needs for energy security.


Forest Fires: Several plants including most pines REQUIRE forest fires to survive.

The tar that holds their cones together will not 'melt' and release the progeny of the next generation without certain, high heat temperatures such as those in forest fires.

The fires were here before we came, us putting them out is detrimental to our forests in the long run. It prevents new growth.

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you for the comment.


Needham, Mass.: There are some results that at least some trees do NOT grow faster with higher levels of CO2; that will probably apply to other plants as well. And with more storms of higher magnitude, there will be more floods, etc., as well as droughts that will not be good for agriculture.

Frank O'Donnell: Thank you. What is clear is that on the whole, global warming is a crisis that poses genuine risks to both our environment and to public health.

We earnestly hope that an EPA endangerment finding will help stimulate positive action in Congresx, and be a needed backstop if Congress fails to act.


Frank O'Donnell: For all of you who took time to participate in this chat, thank you very much. These were excellent questions and observations.



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