Review

Strengthened scientific support for the Endangerment Finding for atmospheric greenhouse gases

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Science  08 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6427, eaat5982
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat5982

The case for endangerment

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the so-called “Endangerment Finding.” This defined a suite of six long-lived greenhouse gases as “air pollution.” Such air pollution was anticipated to represent a danger to the health and welfare of current and future generations. Thus, the EPA has the authority to regulate these gases under the rules of the U.S. Clean Air Act. Duffy et al. provide a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence gathered in the years since then. These findings further support and strengthen the basis of the Endangerment Finding. Thus, a compelling case has been made even more compelling with an enormous body of additional data.

Science, this issue p. eaat5982

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate air pollutants when the EPA Administrator finds that they “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” In Massachusetts v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act and that the EPA may not refuse to regulate once it has made a finding of endangerment.

In December 2009, the EPA released its “Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act,” known informally as the Endangerment Finding (EF). The EF found that six long-lived GHGs, in combination, should be defined as “air pollution” under the Clean Air Act and may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the health and welfare of current and future generations.

The EF is an essential element of the legal basis for regulating GHG emissions under the Clean Air Act. It provides foundational support for important aspects of U.S. climate policy, including vehicle mileage standards for cars and light trucks and the emissions standards for electricity generation known as the “Clean Power Plan.”

The EF was rooted in careful evaluation of observed and projected effects of GHGs, with assessments from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the U.S. National Research Council providing primary evidence. The EF was clear that, although many aspects of climate change were still uncertain, the evidence available in 2009 was strong. Since the original EF, scientific information about the causes, historical impacts, and future risks of climate change has continued to accumulate. This Review assesses that new information in the context of the EF.

ADVANCES

The EF was structured around knowledge related to public health and public welfare, with a primary focus on impacts in the United States. The information on public welfare was grouped into sections on air quality; food production and agriculture; forestry; water resources; sea level rise and coastal areas; energy, infrastructure, and settlements; and ecosystems and wildlife.

In this Review, we assess new evidence in the impact areas addressed in the EF, as well as emergent areas that were not addressed in the EF but in which there have been important advances in understanding the risks of climate change. For each area, we characterize changes since the EF in terms of the strength of evidence for a link with anthropogenic climate change, the severity of observed and projected impacts, and the risk of additional categories of impact beyond those considered in the EF.

For each of the areas addressed in the EF, the amount, diversity, and sophistication of the evidence has increased markedly, clearly strengthening the case for endangerment (see Fig. 1 in the full article). New evidence about the extent, severity, and interconnectedness of impacts detected to date and projected for the future reinforces the case that climate change endangers the health and welfare of current and future generations. For the sectors analyzed in the 2009 EF, new evidence expands the range of case studies, deepens the understanding of mechanisms, and analyzes the contribution of climate change to particular types of extreme events. In many cases, new evidence points to the risk of impacts that are more severe or widespread than those anticipated in 2009. Further, several categories of climate change impacts, including effects on ocean acidification, violence, national security, and economic well-being, are now supported by such broad evidence that they warrant inclusion in the framing of endangerment.

OUTLOOK

The EPA Administrator found in 2009 that the EF for six long-lived GHGs was “compellingly” supported by “strong and clear” scientific evidence. Our review of evidence published since the EF shows that the case for endangerment, which was already overwhelming in 2009, is even more strongly justified in 2018.

New evidence relevant to the EF.

New evidence strengthens the link with anthropogenic climate change (category 1); suggests more severe observed and/or projected impacts (category 2); or identifies new types of risks beyond those considered in the EF (category 3). Examples discussed in this Review include, for category 1, wildfire (left); for category 2, coastal flooding (center); and for category 3, ocean acidification (right).

PHOTO (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT): NASA; W. MCNAMEE; L. DEGUIA.

Abstract

We assess scientific evidence that has emerged since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 Endangerment Finding for six well-mixed greenhouse gases and find that this new evidence lends increased support to the conclusion that these gases pose a danger to public health and welfare. Newly available evidence about a wide range of observed and projected impacts strengthens the association between the risk of some of these impacts and anthropogenic climate change, indicates that some impacts or combinations of impacts have the potential to be more severe than previously understood, and identifies substantial risk of additional impacts through processes and pathways not considered in the Endangerment Finding.

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