Climate 411

New EPA rule for dirty power plants fuels strange debate

Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States.

In the downside-up Alice in Wonderland world of Congress, we are about to begin a debate about whether unlimited pollution is a good thing.

It will be triggered by the Obama administration’s historic announcement today that for the first time, America’s fossil-fueled power plants will not be allowed to release limitless amounts of carbon pollution – a policy that will improve the chances our children and grandchildren will have a safe and healthy future.

No one, of course, will stand up and say they love pollution.

But you’re about to hear elected officials and industry lobbyists talk very loudly about the calamity that will occur if we impose any restriction at all on carbon pollution from power plants.

Learn how you can support carbon limits

Never mind that power plants are the largest source of this pollution, or that they cause major damage to our environment and our health. And don’t worry that up until now, there have been no national limits on them at all.

According to these folks, unless we allow companies to pollute as much as they want, we will face catastrophe.

Pollution is bad – period

The new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would establish standards for carbon pollution from existing power plants, just as they have standards for soot and mercury and other pollutants. The rule is based on decades of science, and will be proposed under authority granted by Congress through the Clean Air Act.

More importantly, it’s based on two pieces of basic common sense:

  1. When there is no limit on pollution, you get a lot of pollution.
  2. Pollution is bad.

It doesn’t seem to reassure the unlimited pollution crowd that every past effort to reduce air pollution has resulted in a net benefit for our economy as well as for our health. In fact, the benefits of most EPA Clean Air Act rules outweigh the costs by 30 to 1.

But as reliably as a humid summer in Washington, critics of the law will wildly over-estimate the cost of complying with new pollution reduction rules.

The impacts of unlimited pollution are scary, as outlined in two recent scientific reports that outline the situation globallyand in the United States. Kids will have more asthma attacks, storms will be more destructive, drought more severe, and lots of other dangerous problems.

Compare that future to one in which we have reasonable limits on carbon pollution. They won’t solve all of our problems, but they are a significant step forward. The new EPA rule will kick-start a transition to a clean-energy and low-carbon future, which will lead to economic and health benefits for everyone.

So next time someone tells you that limits on carbon emissions are a bad idea, ask if he (or she) thinks unlimited pollution is a responsible policy – and watch the person change the subject in a hurry.

It’s how these conversations usually end.

This blog first appeared on EDF Voices

Posted in Cars and Pollution, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions / Comments are closed

The way forward to kicking our carbon addiction

Photo credit: Billy Wilson cc

How would you respond to an upsetting medical diagnosis? Probably first with shock and fear, then you’d ask the doctor about realistic treatment options. That’s how it works for an individual, but what about when seven billion people get the bad news at the same time?

That’s what happened yesterday, when the White House released another troubling National Climate Assessment (NCA). It described a condition that’s going to get significantly worse without intervention – with troubling symptoms already apparent.

Now, to be fair, this NCA wasn’t really news in the “I didn’t see that coming” sense. Just like a patient who has been told to stop smoking for years, there has been plenty of warning that our “unfiltered” smokestacks are causing serious damage to our environment and health. Last month, in fact, the International Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report, and this is the third National Climate Assessment – each making more specific estimates of the climate dangers ahead. And yet, we can’t quit our pack-a-day habit.

The disturbing news is all here: Threats to agriculture from drought, danger for coastal residents and businesses from rising seas, more frequent intense hurricanes, more asthma attacks for kids, the spread of insect borne disease, and much more.

But the good news is that this disease has a cure. In fact, in just about four weeks, the United States is poised to take a very important step towards improving the currently predicted outcome. On June 2, EPA is planning to announce limits on carbon emissions from existing power plants, which are America’s largest source of climate pollution – about a third of the total we produce.

When EPA announces the new standards, what will probably surprise most people is that the agency doesn’t already have limits on this type of pollution. A recent poll indicates that 56% of Americans assume we currently have these protections. That’s an understandable belief since EPA limits most other forms of air pollution, but up to now utilities have been free to put as much of this stuff as they can crank out in our common atmosphere. And all that pollution has a very real cost borne by society.

Of course, as with all other proposed air pollution rules, there will be a small but powerful group who howl in protest. They did it when EPA limited toxic mercury, sulfur, smog and other dangerous pollutants. I’m sure you’ll hear that ending unlimited carbon pollution will wreck our economy and bankrupt us all. But what those people won’t tell you is that studies have shown that every past air pollution rule has actually helped the U.S. economy, with benefits outweighing costs by a substantial margin.

The new rules alone won’t cure climate change. But, along with actions on cars and trucks that have already been announced, they are a substantial first step. These standards will also push utilities to modernize, help grow clean energy jobs, and give a boost to entrepreneurs who are looking for ways to power our economy more cleanly. (EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency is exploring ways to make the rules flexible, allowing states and companies to find innovative ways to meet the standards.)

Cures are never painless, but they’re usually a lot better than the disease. And everyone knows that the sooner you act, the better the outcome. So let’s take yesterday’s diagnosis seriously, and when EPA announces the new carbon standards on June 2, let’s make sure Congress knows we all want a healthy future.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

Posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Policy / Read 2 Responses

The Boring Side of Climate is More Tangible to Most

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF Voices)

A college professor friend of mine once decided to write the least sexy book possible. Lots of academics were trying to be as edgy or trendy and, in keeping with his contrarian personality, he chose to write about insurance in American literature. Those of us working to communicate the impacts of climate change might do well to follow his example.

Environmental groups, including EDF, often focus on the drama of climate change. We do it because we’re already seeing some scary changes in the weather – from severe drought to stronger storms – and because it’s important to give the public a vivid picture of what’s happening. But there are limits to that approach. For example, people who are resistant to a message about global warming, or just not interested, will tune out such information, no matter how dramatic the presentation.

Many people don’t feel an urgency about climate change because it is such a big and remote issue. Something that is “global” necessarily feels distant. Problems that play out over decades and centuries, that involve predictions about the year 2100, are just not relevant to most people. But the truth is that climate change is starting to touch those everyday, boring things that people do care about – like insurance rates and taxes and property values.

Climate affects your 401K and other boring things

Now, boring is not generally a useful attribute in communications. But there are exceptions. You probably take a great interest in such dry and tedious matters as your 401(k) statement,  your property tax bill, or changes to the escrow on your mortgage payment. Why? Because they affect your bank account. And it may be that the best way to reach some people is to let them know that climate change, too, is doing just that.

For example, many New York area residents whose homes were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy have already seen a 25% premium increase from the National Flood Insurance Program. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that thousands of residents there will face a choice of relocating or seeing increases in their insurance bill of $15,000 to $25,000.  And the business group CERES questions whether the insurance industry as a whole is prepared for the financial impacts of climate change.

This is an issue that re-insurance giant Munich Re has been studying for some time.  (If there’s something more boring than insurance, it’s re-insurance.  These are the companies that, essentially, insure the insurance companies against their risks and payouts.)  The company sees that warming oceans and higher sea levels are causing stronger storms and bigger surges of water around the globe – which, in turn, causes greater destruction of property and bigger insurance claims. So Munich Re has reasonably concluded that climate change will affect its bottom line. Which means that it will affect your bottom line, as well.

The non-environmentalist would rather save on their grocery bill than save polar bears

Of course, the effects of climate change are not limited to insurance rates. Municipal budgets have to absorb the cost of infrastructure changes, and recovery costs, associated with extreme weather.  Food prices are affected by crop losses due to record droughts.  And all of these costs get spread through the economy as the federal government pays for storm damage and recovery, and insurance and food costs are passed along to every one of us. These are issues that hit home to all those voters who don’t spend ten seconds a year thinking about the fate of polar bears.

It’s our job in the environmental community to open up a line of communication with these people.  We need to lay out the boring facts and make the boring case.  Let’s show those Americans not yet interested in climate change it is going to hit them in the wallet – whether or not they’re interested in the issue.  And by acting together, now, we can all save a lot of money…and, as a bonus, our grandchildren will get a healthier and safer world.

Posted in Economics, Policy / Comments are closed

It’s the Demographics, Stupid: Why the Political Future Looks Good for Environmentalism

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF Voices)

Image by Propaganda Times

Political strategists not only want to know what The People think today, but where they are headed.  In the short term, that might mean understanding that an issue that’s popular right now – perhaps because of something in the news – might become unpopular by Election Day.  In the longer term, strategists need to understand demographic and political trends so that their party doesn’t get left behind.

The question of immigration reform is a good example. Both parties see that Latinos are a fast growing segment of the population. So it is obviously very important, in order to win future elections, to be attractive to these voters. That has led to the bi-partisan, self-interested push to achieve immigration reform, which is a high priority for many Hispanic-Americans.

What is true of ethnic population growth is also true when it comes to the inexorable aging of every individual voter. If people born before World War II mostly hold one view and people born after 1980 mostly hold the opposite view, a smart political strategist will align his party with the latter position. Why? Because the younger people will be voting for many more decades than their grandparents. This phenomenon is an important element in the fast changing politics of gay marriage.  As this Washington Post analysis shows, young people are far more supportive of gay marriage, so it’s a long-term political problem (nationally) for those who are opposed.

Politicians are beginning to understand that the same variables come into play with climate change. According to polling by the PEW Center, more than 70% of Americans already believe the climate is changing. But on the more contentious question of whether greenhouse gas pollution is causing that change, there is a dramatic generational divide. Only 28% of voters over 65 accept the scientific consensus that these emissions are warming the Earth, but close to 50% of those under 50 accept it. That means that support for policies to limit greenhouse pollution will only grow in the years ahead. (And there is no reason to believe that young voters will change their minds about this scientific question as they get older.)

Based on data from the PEW Research Center

Some strategists will argue that despite the growing support for climate action, not enough people consider it a “voting issue” – something citizens use to determine which candidate to support.  Still, a candidate’s view on this issue, as for gay marriage, can be a signal to voters about their broader political profile. For example, while gay marriage doesn’t have a direct impact on a majority of voters, younger people may see opposition to it as a signal that a candidate is intolerant. Similarly, voters born after 1985 — who have never experienced a colder than average month — may regard a politician who denies  the scientific evidence of climate change as out of touch.

This doesn’t mean supporters of climate action can relax because a demographic wave is coming to save us. Population changes come slowly and the scientific evidence suggests global warming is advancing rapidly. If we wait on population trends to save us, things will get a lot worse and more expensive to fix before they get better. So we need to continue to push for action, and hope the pundits and strategists see which way the political winds are blowing.

Posted in Policy / Comments are closed

Executive Action Critical, but not Enough to Fight Global Warming

(This blog was first posted on EDF Voices)

Image: Chuck Kennedy/White House

I received the following comment about Part 1 of this series that warrants its own blog post.

The politics of climate change is an issue The Nation has covered extensively, and I think many of our readers would wonder why Mr. Gaby, in asserting that Congressional legislation is the only means of taking serious federal action against climate change, ignores the argument (put forth by the Center for Biological Diversity, among others) that President Obama and his EPA Administrator already have the authority under the Clean Air Act to order dramatic reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Congress is one way; it is hardly the only way. And since Congress is now blocked by right-wing intransigence, and since the hour (as Mr. Gaby notes) is already very late, surely it behooves us to deploy a readier tool, no?  —  Mark Hertsgaard, environment correspondent for The Nation magazine and  author of numerous books about climate change, including HOT:  Living Through the Next Fifty Years on EarthMr. Hertsgaard is also a Fellow of the New America Foundation.

My response:

Because Congress failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, and prospects for action in the current Congress are remote, many environmentalists have been focused on steps President Obama can take on his own. And it is true that the President has authority under the Clean Air Act to take significant action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But while these steps are both necessary and critically important, they do not let Congress off the hook in the long run.

Why? To borrow a line from the 2012 campaign, it’s simple math.

The World Resources Institute recently studied the impact of actions the EPA could take under existing law. In Goldilocks style, they laid out three scenarios – lackluster, middle-of-the-road, and go-getter – based on the aggressiveness of EPA’s approach. Unlike the home-invading blonde of the fairy tale, WRI recommends the most aggressive approach, which would reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. That’s the same level of reductions that would have been achieved by the failed congressional legislation. What’s more, this path would result in a 40% reduction in pollution by 2050.

So what’s the problem?  Well, a 40% reduction is only half of what we need to achieve to avert the worst impacts. In other words, we can’t get to a safe climate from here without action by Congress, even under the most aggressive scenario of executive action. As WRI says, “New federal legislation will eventually be needed, because even go-getter action by federal and state governments will probably fail to achieve the more than 80 percent GHG emissions reductions necessary to fend off the most deleterious impacts of climate change.”

Without that level of commitment, we also won’t see other countries achieve the reductions necessary. While about one-third of the world’s economic output is technically covered by some form of greenhouse gas emissions limit, these rules are far from enough to solve the problem. And while growth-hungry nations in Asia are starting to take steps on climate change, they will likely insist on bold action by the United States before moving as aggressively as is necessary.

The most important short term domestic priority for environmentalists should be ensuring that EPA carries out its obligations under the Clean Air Act*. That would cut billions of tons of pollution and buy us critical time in the fight against climate change. But if we are to prevent the worst impacts of artificially altering the Earth’s natural systems, we need Congress to eventually accept its responsibility to protect the nation.

*EDF economist Gernot Wagner has more details on executive actions President Obama can take to tackle climate change.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy / Comments are closed

Republicans vs. Democrats: Why Washington is Stuck on Climate Change (Part 2)

(This blog was first posted on EDF Voices)

Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Look at the polls: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say that most scientists agree that climate change is occurring. But why don’t conservatives believe in climate change? For some progressives, the answer is easy: Republicans are dumb or backwards or fooling themselves. They may feel the same about me, since I don’t think it ever makes sense to write off a hundred million of your fellow Americans as fools for disagreeing with you.

It is certainly true that partisanship drives a lot of the opposition. President Obama is for it, so they are against it. Al Gore is the face of climate change, so it must be wrong. That’s an irrational approach to any issue, but it is something we all do. Democrats should try this thought experiment: If Dick Cheney were promoting an issue, calling on Americans to make it a national priority and touring the country with a fact-filled slide show, would you be willing to agree with him?

Gallup Poll

You might say it would depend on the facts he was presenting, but if I honestly ask myself the question, I know it would be very hard for me to stand on his side.

Or look at the issue of missile defense. There may be plenty of reasons to be skeptical of missile defense, but for most progressives who don’t follow the issue closely (like me), I think our opposition is rooted in the fact that President Reagan first promoted it.

Progressive are no more interested in having their cities bombed than Republicans are in having them flooded, and very few non-experts on either side really understand the complex science of either issue. But we have taken our cues from the leaders we trust, and instinctively oppose those with whom we generally disagree. (Just to be clear, I’m not arguing the relative merits of missile defense and climate action. My point is simply that tribalism and partisanship tends to color our judgment.)

So it makes sense that conservatives would start out as skeptical toward climate change. But once every major scientific organization has concluded the science is right, shouldn’t they get past that? After all, the consensus view of climate science has been endorsed by the august and stodgy National Academy of Sciences, which President George W. Bush called the “gold standard” of scientific inquiry.

It may be that a more important reason many conservatives are reluctant to accept the science of global warming is that the solutions worry them. Addressing the problem will require national policies (and international cooperation) that shift our economy towards clean energy, and the GOP generally wants less, not more, government. So conservatives are going to demand very strong evidence that the problem is real and dangerous.

Still, I believe that for most conservatives, the bar of proof is not set infinitely high. When they see a real, dangerous threat, they get behind government action. For example, Republicans support the Centers for Disease Control’s work to fight epidemic diseases and FBI efforts against organized crime. Similarly, once conservatives are convinced that climate change threatens our way of life, they will support policies to address the problem. Their solutions may be different from EDF’s, but that’s a debate the nation would benefit from having.

Next time: How to build a constructive conversation between progressives and conservatives on climate change.

Posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy / Read 1 Response