This story has been updated.
In the past several weeks alone, the Obama administration has made multiple new moves to fight climate change. The administration announced new steps to help fill U.S. roadways with electric vehicles. It ruled that greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft endanger human health and welfare. And on the international stage, it moved the world closer to a deal to phase out super-polluting HFCs, chemicals in refrigerants and other industrial substances that warm the climate.
But as Obama’s term dwindles, the act isn’t over — on Tuesday the White House released yet another policy to fight climate change, one with potentially far-reaching consequences. The White House’s chief environmental office, the Council on Environmental Quality, finalized a six-year process of shaping how the government’s agencies, across the board, will factor climate change into their decisions.
The council’s new guidance involves what activists and environmental lawyers know as “NEPA” — one of those exceedingly wonky policies that is nevertheless critical to how the modern federal government functions. NEPA is short for a foundational 1969 environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, that required federal agencies to consider environmental consequences of their actions — all kinds of actions, ranging from granting a permit to drill on public lands to building a new road or bridge.
NEPA hails from the Nixon era, when Republicans were environmentalists, too, and when both parties actually agreed about environmental policy (or, at least, a lot more than they agree now). For the most significant federal actions, it requires agencies to prepare an “Environmental Impact Statement,” essentially a report, detailing the consequences of the move and how those consequences might be averted. The federal government wrote 563 of these reports in 2015, according to the White House.
NEPA is pretty sweeping – under it, “all federal agencies are to prepare detailed statements assessing the environmental impact of and alternatives to major federal actions significantly affecting the environment,” according to the EPA.
And now, the new guidance from the Council on Environmental Quality will ask agencies to not only include climate change in these considerations but actually quantify the climate impacts of their decisions, when possible, in the context of the environmental reviews that are already required by NEPA. It will also ask them to consider how to do things differently, in a way that could help prepare the U.S. better for a warming climate.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’
“And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making,” continued Goldfuss, whose office was actually established by the original NEPA . “This will really embody the climate change analysis of this administration, where we say the federal agencies have to consider this over time.”
The final guidance released Tuesday is preceded by draft versions released in 2010 and 2014. Those garnered hundreds of comments from environmentalists, industry, and agencies themselves.
Early reactions to the new policy from the environmental community were quite favorable. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s president Rhea Suh called it a “game changer.”
“Simply put, this is a commonsense step that underlines the Administration’s commitment to addressing climate change. Federal land management agencies should implement this guidance without delay, and use cutting-edge science to make climate-smart decisions,” added Chase Huntley, senior director of the Wilderness Society’s energy and climate campaign.
When it comes to quantification, the new guidance suggests trying to calculate how many carbon dioxide emissions a new project, permit, or other agency action would cause — or, alternatively, how much carbon it may sequester. Replanting trees or other land use changes affecting agriculture, for instance, could lead to more storage of carbon in the U.S.’s soils and its vegetation, rather than in the atmosphere.
The guidance also directs agencies to consider not only direct emissions of a project but also the “indirect” emissions. So, building a new road might encourage more people to drive, leading to more vehicular emissions.
If agencies really can’t quantify the carbon consequences of their actions — if, for instance, there simply isn’t a legitimate scientific way of doing so — then the guidance recommends that they conduct a more “qualitative” analysis instead, and explain their reasoning.
Notably, the final guidance doesn’t prescribe any cutoff level, below which an amount of greenhouse gases would be considered insignificant. “A statement that emissions from a proposed Federal action represent only a small fraction of global emissions is essentially a statement about the nature of the climate change challenge, and is not an appropriate basis for deciding whether or to what extent to consider climate change impacts under NEPA,” reads the guidance.
To be sure, some U.S. government agencies may already have been considering the effect of climate change on their decisions. But they likely were operating from earlier draft guidances, and not always applying them uniformly.
“This will really provide that consistent framework, so that people understand what the rules of the road are,” Goldfuss said.
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