FALMOUTH – I am a lifelong Republican who cares about Maine’s natural environment, and I am deeply dismayed by the attacks being made by representatives of the fossil-fuel industry against efforts to address the threat of climate change and promote clean energy development.

Last spring, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Maine is fortunate to have these two thoughtful politicians who understand that climate change poses a serious threat to our economy, environment and future.

Snowe gets this, as she demonstrated when she exhorted her colleagues a few years back with these words: “With overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is adversely impacting the health of our planet, the time has come for the Congress to take action.”

Collins has made many similar comments, such as these during a 2009 commencement address at Unity College: “Climate change is the most significant environmental challenge facing our country and our planet.”

Maine’s entire congressional delegation understands what the National Academy of Sciences, our nation’s premier scientific body, concluded last spring in a landmark report. Namely, that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.”

The academy concluded that “national-scale response efforts are urgently needed.” Yet, even as Washington, D.C., last summer experienced one of its worst heat waves in history — as did communities from Moscow to Minnesota — the U.S. Senate failed to act on legislation to curb carbon emissions and boost clean energy development.

AN ACT FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

The scientific data keep substantiating the problem, even as our political system fails to address it. The past decade was the warmest ever recorded, according to data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 7,000 weather stations around the world. But legislation that would have reduced our contributions to global warming was defeated.

The coal, oil and utility lobbies reportedly spent $500 million over the past two years lobbying to thwart legislation that would have reduced our dependence on fossil fuels. And having blocked action by Congress, they now want to block action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA administers the nation’s Clean Air Act, which has been one of our most effective and beneficial laws protecting public health and the environment.

The Clean Air Act has saved millions of lives by ensuring that modern emission control technologies are installed to reduce the air pollution that threatens our children, seniors, and those with respiratory difficulties. Between 1970 and 1990 alone, the Clean Air Act provided an estimated $22 trillion in savings from avoided health care expenses.

When Congress enacted the Clean Air Act four decades ago, it gave the Environmental Protection Agency the responsibility of protecting the health of the American public when science demonstrated that new air pollutants posed a threat to our health and environment.

The science now shows that carbon pollution poses just such a risk. That is why the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 confirmed a landmark decision about human health threats from the pollution released from burning fossil fuels, obligating the EPA to take action through the Clean Air Act.

LAW’S INTENTIONS CLEAR

But the very people who blocked action by Congress on climate and clean energy legislation now claim that the EPA shouldn’t regulate carbon pollution, either. They say Congress should, yet we know where that will go.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is expected to propose an amendment during the lame-duck legislative session now under way that would block the EPA from using the Clean Air Act as it was intended.

Attacking the Clean Air Act in this fashion would allow polluters off the hook in addressing one of the most serious issues of our time. The intense lobbying by the oil, gas and coal sectors cannot be allowed to weaken the EPA’s authority to protect our health by regulating harmful air pollution emissions.

Former Maine Sens. George Mitchell and Ed Muskie championed the Clean Air Act and left a proud legacy of environmental stewardship that Sens. Snowe and Collins need to reinforce. We cannot keep treating the atmosphere as an open sewer for carbon pollution from fossil-fuel combustion.

Because Congress failed to act over the past two years, it is now time for the EPA to take measured steps forward. That is what the EPA’s guidelines require, and the agency should be allowed to get on with it — now that Congress seems to have abdicated its responsibility.