Last week the White House reversed long-standing policy and permitted the EPA to issue a proposed endangerment finding that greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and safety. Under the Clean Air Act this finding would permit the EPA to set limits on how much coal, oil and natural gas could be burned in the US without capturing and sequestering the CO2 and other emissions.

This finding marks the first step in what could turn out as a mega-policy shift in a class with nationalizing health care or reining in military spending. The issue is so important and has such far ranging consequences it is likely to be decided after lengthy debate in Congress and not by EPA regulation.

At the heart of the debate will be the long-running and long-ignored issues of whether global warming is caused or exacerbated by burning fossil fuels, how imminent and serious is the threat of global warming, and whether expensive restrictions on fossil fuel consumption are needed or can be put off until after the economic rebound. Hearings start this week.

In other times, the result of this debate likely would have been a watered-down compromise that would not have resulted in major restrictions in emissions. However, these are not normal times. The alarms sounded by climate scientists are becoming steadily louder and the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is coming up in December. Unless the US takes definitive action prior to the Conference, many countries such as China and India are likely to continue pumping out greenhouse gases until their fossil fuels run down or until the countries are impacted by climate.

In Washington, both sides of the debate are already predicting dire consequences if emissions restrictions are, or are not, imposed.