A bus exhaust pipe in San Diego, Calif.
A bus exhaust pipe in San Diego, Calif. - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: Vermont prides itself on being different than other states. It was the last state in the union where Wal-Mart was able to open shop, for example. And it's now the place where Detroit's chosen to fight proposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions. A federal trial started today in Burlington over the state's regulation of CO2.

Dan Esty teaches environmental law at Yale University. Professor Esty, welcome to the program.

DAN ESTY: It's a pleasure to be with you.

RYSSDAL: The Supreme Court decided last week a very important emissions case ruling that the EPA does have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide. What exactly is an issue in this case up in Vermont?

ESTY: Well, in Vermont, we've got the case where a state, in this case Vermont, has decided to step up and regulate carbon dioxide in the coming years. And this is something that not only Vermont is doing, but they're all . . . nine other states along with Vermont are trailing in the wake of California, that chose to do this in 2005. So we have an interesting question, where the automakers are saying, "No no no, states cannot regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This is something that only federal government can do."

RYSSDAL: And what they're saying is that basically, the costs of compliance are too high, the deadlines are unrealistic. Do you think that's gonna hold any water with a federal trial?

ESTY: I'm really not sure that it will. I think what we have is a changed circumstance from the past. We now recognize that the science of climate change, while still having some uncertainties in it, is clear enough to justify real action. And there's gonna have to be dramatic change made across all of the sectors — including the auto industry — where greenhouse gases are emitted. So I think the question about whether things are technologically feasible is gonna be a hard case to make for the auto industry.

RYSSDAL: If the auto industry fails in this case — that is, if the states win — would we then face 50 different regulations across the country on carbon dioxide?

ESTY: That's certainly the concern that the auto industry will raise in this case. They're gonna say, "Well even if there's a problem here, we don't want 50 different state standards." But that's something of a red herring. There's not really a risk of that. What the Clean Air Act — our federal Clean Air Act — says, is that California, given its historic challenge with air pollution, is permitted to set different standards. And then states are permitted to sign onto the California rule, if they prefer, as opposed to a more lax federal rule. So we're really at risk of only two standards, and the fact that you've got so many states stepping up to the California standard, to the state standard that in this case is gonna be tougher than the federal one, simply signals, I think, that we've had a policy failure at the federal level. We have a federal structure — a policy-making system lead by the Bush Administration — that has not produced a vibrant and serious response to climate change. And this is a signal that the American public, in particular the governors of many states, want to see action.

RYSSDAL: So where does this wind up? If Detroit . . . well, appeal I guess would be certain, right?

ESTY: I think there's gonna be an appeal, whichever side wins, whichever side loses. I think there's a particularly tough case for Detroit to make here. And it's because . . . it's not as though everybody's having trouble here. And one of the big issues that's gonna emerge out of the case is the auto industry's demand for secrecy. They really want limited press coverage of this trial. They don't want to have to talk about what technologies they have in place. And frankly, I think they're fearful that if Detroit is allowed to, or required to put forward its information alongside what the Japanese are capable of, it will become quite apparent that Japan has been thinking strategically about environmental issues. And they have a vehicle fleet and a portfolio of cars that are going to be rolled out over the next two years or three years that are really quite capable of meeting these standards. And Detroit is complaining that it couldn't possibly do it and that it'll have no cars to sell five or 10 years from now. And I think that argument — the suggestion that somehow, there shouldn't be a public conversation about this, that these things should be kept secret, particularly when it will reveal simply bad management decisions on the part of auto makers in Detroit — is gonna be really an interesting thing to see play out.

RYSSDAL: Dan Esty is a professor of environmental law and policy at Yale University. Professor Esty, thanks a lot for your time.

ESTY: A pleasure to be with you.