In his second inaugural address, President Obama promised to prioritize environmental issues, particularly climate change, over the next four years. He has begun that push on familiar ground, using two laws from the past century to achieve more traditional goals: clean air and land conservation.
Global warming is the greatest environmental danger. But so much focus on it has long crowded out other issues. Obama is right to take a wider view.
Last month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules governing toxic emissions from car tailpipes, meant to cut down on the particulate pollution and smog that inflame asthma, heart problems and other ailments. Oil refiners don’t like the proposal because, they claimed, it would raise the price of their product too much. But the EPA reckons that the value of the benefits will top the costs by a wide margin. The rules’ backers, meanwhile, argue that they work in tandem with fuel-efficiency standards the administration proposed in its last term. These standards will cut the amount of gasoline the country uses — and with it carbon emissions — while the emissions rules will make the gas cleaner.
In the same week, the president set aside land for five new national monuments. Two will preserve tracts with significant environmental value. New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument covers 240,000 acres of wilderness and contains a spectacular basalt gorge in which eagles, falcons and hawks nest. Obama also set aside hundreds of islands in Washington state that host pristine forestland, while the deep waterways between them support ocean life such as seals and killer whales.
Some in Congress have objected to Obama’s unilateral moves, taken under statutes lawmakers passed decades ago. Yet one can hardly blame the president. Despite bipartisan support for various land conservation proposals, the last Congress was the first since 1966 that failed to set aside any land — any at all.
If lawmakers object to unilateral action, they should act, passing some of the conservation bills that died at the end of the last Congress. If they can think of a better plan than the EPA’s to cut dangerous air pollution, they should pass a bill to make it happen. Congressional cooperation would accomplish more than the president can do alone, particularly in sorting out the thorny issue of which federal lands should be off-limits to oil, gas and other resource development.
While they’re at it, lawmakers should finally get to — yes — climate change, as well. Here, too, the president can act unilaterally, using the EPA to crack down on greenhouse emissions. But the best climate policies, such as taxing such emissions, would require lawmakers’ approval.