opinion | Carbon is a toxic substance. We have to organize it this way.

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Due to human activity, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than At any point in the past four million years. We’ve increased the concentration of this heat-retaining gas by a full 50% since the Industrial Revolution. And the Carbon emissions last year 36.3 billion tons Set a new record.

There’s your case report on the battle against climate change: By any scientific measure, we’re losing.

However, we have to find a way to snatch an acceptable victory from the jaws of defeat, because the consequences of runaway climate change are no longer theoretical. Yellowstone National Park ClosedAfter unprecedented torrential rains, roads swept away, possibly changing the landscape permanently. Western countries Suffering from severe dehydration making the country’s largest cabinets look like drained bathtubs; water rationing It is inevitable. Around the world, deadly summer heat waves arrived early, in spring. Sea level rise is illustrated in .’s videos Collapsed houses on the seashore in the waves.

It is already too late to avoid the long-term consequences of climate change. The carbon we pumped into the atmosphere will be around for centuries. But we can – we must – stop making the problem worse and lessen the damage we can do. The punitive effects that we see now are slight compared to the horrors that will confront future generations, which will curse us for anticipating disaster and yet refusing to prevent it.

“We should have started taking action decades ago. This is the best time,” James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate experts and former president of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told me last week. “The second best time is now.”

Hansen is among a group of scientists trying a new approach to force our government to act more boldly. On Thursday, they presented formal petition With the EPA seeking to require the EPA to regulate carbon under current legislation, Toxic Substances Control Act.

By law, the EPA has 90 days to respond by determining whether carbon dioxide, methane, and other heat-trapping gases are pointing to “Unreasonable risk of harm to health or the environment” under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was signed into law in 1976 and updated in 2016.

It’s the law that has been used, for example, to ban chemicals known as CFCs, or CFCsIts widespread use damages the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. Since the reduction of CFCs, the ozone layer She started to heal herself.

Hansen fellow petitioners They are without c. Viviani, a 35-year-old retired veteran EPA scientist (who I’ve known for years); Liz Van Susteren, a psychiatrist and professor at George Washington University; John Birx, Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Colorado; and Richard Headey, co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute.

Deciding that carbon dioxide is a toxic substance as defined by law would be only a first step. The Environmental Protection Agency would have to draft and implement rules that could, for example, charge a fee for carbon emissions — and also require companies to remove carbon from the atmosphere they’ve already expelled.

Using existing law and agreed-upon science is a smart strategy. But the main obstacles to tackling climate change have always been political. The fossil fuel industry will use its vast stock of money and influence to fight EPA’s carbon regulation. The Biden administration may dismiss the idea of ​​any such action at a time when global energy markets are in turmoil and American consumers are paying about $5 a gallon for gasoline. A conservative majority in the Supreme Court may be skeptical, if not despised, of the idea that such a sweeping change could be mandated by the sentencing executive.

But it’s all in black and white in the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was passed and amended with bipartisan support. Scriptwriters will have to tie themselves into a contract to explain why the words of the law do not clearly mean what they say.

You might ask what difference this or any other dramatic measure to reduce US emissions might make, given that our country is only responsible for about 13 percent of global carbon emissions. China emits twice as much emissions and is by far the world’s largest carbon polluter.

“American action is a necessary condition” for effective international action, Viviani said. As the world’s greatest economic power, we are responsible for more additional carbon currently accumulating in the atmosphere than any other country.

We have led the way into this mess. We need to lead the way out.