"Some courts are taking laws written more than 30 years ago to primarily address local and regional environmental effects, and applying them to global climate change. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate change." —George W. Bush, April 16, 2008
The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act—enacted with bipartisan support and signed by a Republican president, Richard Nixon—were most definitely not meant "to primarily address local and regional environmental effects." The statement makes no sense.
The Clean Air Act was meant to protect clean-air areas and clean up polluted areas everywhere—and it has resulted in extraordinary progress. More is needed, but we’ve come a long way. Likewise the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. They are both national laws designed to address national problems. The greatest successes of the wildlife law—the rescue of the bald eagle, our national symbol, and other species—were achieved because the birds were protected wherever they live, not locally or regionally. The essential successes of NEPA are due to the fact that the law requires all federal agencies, everywhere, to assess the likely environmental impacts of projects they permit, fund, or carry out themselves, before it’s too late.
The assertion that the laws were not meant to combat global warming is likewise wide of the point. Had we known how imminent and real the threat of climate change would become (some scientists saw this coming decades ago but few listened) Congress no doubt would have incorporated explicit language in the air law. But it’s the nature of the legal system to apply principles of law to emerging problems so long as they do not violate the intent of the Congress that enacted the laws in the first place.
The National Environmental Policy Act was designed to spot environmental problems before they get out of hand—it is the perfect statute to address climate change in all its myriad forms and facets. With endangered species, the Congress wanted to protect disappearing species from whatever was putting them in jeopardy of extinction. If global warming is harming protected species (and it most clearly is), then the Endangered Species Act is a perfectly legitimate tool to use to combat the warming.
We fervently hope that Congress will soon enact stringent new laws to tackle global warming. Meanwhile, more power to the attorneys, including ours, and organizations that are making creative use of the laws we already have on the books.