New climate change policy: Republicans object, Democrats worry

A new set of 'climate-smart' guidelines clarify how government agencies must weigh the environmental consequences of their actions.

John Minchillo/AP/File
Climate change activists protest in downtown Philadelphia on Sunday, July 24. New guidelines require federal agencies to calculate how their decisions will affect global climate change.

Starting now, environmental costs must factor into every federal cost-benefit analysis, say Obama administration officials.

The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released a report on Wednesday outlining new guidelines on how government agencies must analyze the consequences of their actions on climate change.

The guidelines are meant to streamline climate change analyses across government agencies, quantify the exact amount of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from government decisions, and encourage agencies to consider methods with the smallest environmental cost. 

Republicans question the legality of the guidelines, while Democrats worry that they will be difficult to enforce.

"From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change," Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality, told The Washington Post. "Think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. 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."

The CEQ recommendation is the latest in a string of climate change mitigation policies enacted by the Obama administration in recent months. The new policy is primarily an expansion of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, signed into law by Richard Nixon, which was the first piece of legislation to require federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of their actions.

The new guidelines are part of an effort to modernize NEPA to “improve the transparency, involvement of the public, and efficiency of environmental reviews,” according to a White House statement.

“The document is meant to harmonize practices across federal agencies,” Jayni Hein, policy director for the Institute for Policy Integrity, told Scientific American. “The guidelines are not legally binding, but they will be persuasive to agencies, most importantly.”

But many Republicans are not pleased with the decision.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that "global climate change falls outside of the scope of NEPA, so the guidance has no legal basis" – particularly since Goldfuss, the acting head of the CEQ, has not been confirmed by the Senate.

Additionally, Republicans say that requiring additional analyses for potential projects will slow down the already glacial pace of the federal government.

Democrats have a different set of concerns. They are worried that, as applying the guidelines is left up to the discretion of the individual agencies, the new protocol will fall apart once Obama is no longer in office.

"I’ve also called for using the social cost of carbon during NEPA review to measure the damage greenhouse gas emissions will cause for future generations. Unfortunately, the CEQ left whether to use this powerful tool up to agency discretion," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island, a climate action advocate, in a statement. "That's a missed opportunity."

Ultimately, success of the guidelines will depend on how many government agencies actually apply them to their reports.

“Simply put, this is a commonsense step that underlines the administration’s commitment to addressing climate change,” Chase Huntley, senior director of the Wilderness Society’s energy and climate campaign, told The Washington Post. “Federal land management agencies should implement this guidance without delay, and use cutting-edge science to make climate-smart decisions.”

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