Editorial: Confessions on Climate (NY Times)

The Bush administration has now provided the rationale for its lamentable decision to deny California permission to develop its own stricter rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The explanation was full of holes, but it was not a total setback for those who want urgent action on global warming.

The essence of the administration's reasoning was that California had failed to demonstrate "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances justifying stricter rules. To make that case, Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was forced to argue that climate change gravely endangered not only California but the entire country. As hard as it is to believe, this was the first time that any senior administration official had explicitly conceded that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.

Even more startling for an administration that has spent seven years in denial, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," that man-made emissions are largely responsible and that the consequences could be devastating — more wildfires, more droughts, rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more outbreaks of insect-borne diseases.

Given all that, one would assume that Mr. Johnson is at last ready to champion a national program of controls on greenhouse gas emissions, something the administration has long resisted. At the very least, he would now seem obliged to begin regulating greenhouse gases, at least from vehicles. The Supreme Court in effect ordered the E.P.A. to do just that last April, when it declared carbon dioxide a pollutant subject to regulatory control. Nearly a year has gone by, and Mr. Johnson has not announced any new regulations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson's decision to deny California the right to set its own emission standards is unquestionably a blow to anyone worried about climate change and its consequences. With neither the administration nor Congress willing to take aggressive action — the Senate is only now beginning to entertain a broad program of emissions reductions — there were hopes that the states could fill the gap.

California's program was intended to take effect in 2009 and aimed to cut greenhouse gases from vehicles by nearly one-third by 2016. These are double the reductions that would be achieved by the new fuel economy standards contained in last year's energy bill, the best the federal government has been able to do so far.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 allows California to set stricter standards than the federal government (in part because its own clean air laws predate the federal statute) as long as it first receives a federal waiver. Once that waiver is granted, other states can adopt the same standards. In anticipation of a waiver, 12 other states — including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — had adopted California's greenhouse gas standards and a half-dozen more are in the process of doing so. The states are now stuck with the weaker targets called for in the energy bill.

The states and various environmental groups will rightly challenge this latest decision in court. We have no doubt that the law and sound public policy are on California's side. Meanwhile, the way Mr. Johnson framed his case leaves him and the administration no choice except to seek a national regulatory solution. As Lisa Heinzerling, the Georgetown professor who wrote the plaintiffs' briefs in last year's Supreme Court case, observed: Mr. Johnson "cannot avoid the consequences of his own decisions."

We hope she is right. It is past time for this administration to do what is required by law and the planet.