Wednesday, June 4, 2014

1436. Rhetoric and Realities Around Obama’s ‘Carbon Pollution’ Power Plant Rules

By Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, June 3, 2014
Climate changes already spells disaster for millions around the world not to mention untold number of species and ecosystems
With the release this morning of the Obama administration’s proposed regulations curbing emissions of heat-trapping gases from existing power plants, the battle to shape public attitudes is already in high gear.
Republicans are scurrying to label the move a hidden “national energy tax” and “war on coal” (see the fine NBC online piece titled “Carbon Combat” for more).
The big Beltway-oriented green groups are largely hailing the plan, which is no surprise given the close ties between these groups and the administration. (As just one example, take Joe Goffman, the senior E.P.A. official featured in the agency’s whiteboard talk on the climate plan above, who has moved twice between the agency and the Environmental Defense Fund.)
Other climate and energy campaigners see far too weak a plan, with Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center making this trenchant observation about how recent progress on emissions (through the surprise shift from coal to gas and rise in energy efficiency) compares to the planned cuts:
By calling for only a second round of 15% cuts (355 million tonnes) from 2014 to 2030, the Obama plan in effect takes twice as long (16 years) to cut as much carbon pollution as the country just did (in 8 years, from 2005 to 2013).

To press the case for action, the Obama administration is intensifying a rhetorical shift that’s been pushed by climate campaigners for several years — from carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions to “carbon pollution.” The graphic above from the E.P.A. website for the proposed “carbon pollution standards” is a case in point.
The intent is clear, particularly given how Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and others in the administration are focusing today’s message (video here) not only on stemming global warming but also the direct health and smog benefits of shifting from coal burning to cleaner alternatives.
The “carbon pollution” phrase has been gaining a bit of traction ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the agency had the right to restrict greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, a law originally aimed at more conventional forms of pollution, like the precursors of smog and acid rain. (Check this Google Trends comparison of “carbon pollution” and “greenhouse gas emissions.”)
One technical problem with this approach is that not all carbon-containing molecules have significant heat-trapping properties and not all human-released greenhouse gases contributing to global warming contain carbon (nitrous oxide comes to mind).
But that’s really a side note. The bigger challenge is, of course, that language isn’t the problem.
The “super wicked” nature of the building greenhouse effect is the problem.
Not only are the impacts of global warming dispersed unevenly around the globe and mostly still backloaded on future generations, but the global human population is heading toward 9 billion people seeking decent lives — a process that, even with substantial work on efficiency, requires enormously expanded access to energy, most of which will still come from fossil fuels for at least decades to come.
Read George Marshall’s recent invaluable piece on the other rhetorical tussle of late — between “climate change” and “global warming — to learn more about the limits of framing.
In a Huffington Post article on Obama’s climate plan, Steve Cohen, the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, lays out why the president’s move is creditable, but nowhere near a climate change game changer: 
“Devoting scarce political capital to the goal of raising the price of fossil fuels is a waste of effort. Without substitutes, their use will grow regardless of price. They are simply too important to regulate; they must be replaced. Energy is deeply connected and imbedded in every aspect of modern life. Fossil fuel energy prices will rise and the growing proportion of GDP devoted to energy could very well dampen economic growth and threaten political stability. Post-industrial nations like ours will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade and indeed those reductions have already begun. Nevertheless, the vast increases in fossil fuel based energy use in China and India alone virtually guarantee continued global warming. No treaty or policy will reduce the hunger for fossil fuels in those places. Only a lower-priced, reliable and convenient replacement for fossil fuels will make a difference. The argument is that a global climate policy will speed the development of renewables. I see no evidence of that. It could just as easily be ignored, undermining the legitimacy of international law.
“A replacement for fossil fuels is essential for ecological, economic and political sustainability and stability. Governments should focus as much human brainpower as we can find to develop and implement renewable energy technology. The goal should be to make fossil fuels irrelevant. Fossil fuels need to become the energy equivalent of the eight-track tape. They need to be driven from the marketplace by a better source of energy. By ‘better’ I mean lower-priced, reliable and less of a threat to our ecosphere.
“Given my view of the big picture, why do I favor the command and control regulation of greenhouse gases that the Obama Administration is employing? First, because it places climate change more firmly on this country's institutional, political and policy agenda. A clear signal is being provided to private corporations, governments, nonprofits and everyone else that climate change is a real threat and the U.S. federal government is at long last ready to respond. The second reason that I am heartened by the administration's move is that it is the only policy option available under current political conditions. While it will be a decade before it is meaningful and operational, and other policies might be speedier and more effective, it beats the current U.S. national policy: doing almost nothing.
“The new greenhouse gas regulation is no profile in political courage, but I gave up "hope" long ago that President Obama would respond aggressively to the climate crisis. Given the political potency of the hard right, he was not going to risk reelection over climate policy. The president had the authority to propose today's rule since he came to office in 2009. When the Waxman and Markey cap-and-trade policy was killed in the spring of 2010, he could have responded with the same policy he will announce today. He could have reminded the business community that the alternative to the more efficient cap-and-trade policy was the available blunt weapon of command and control regulation. It took an extra four years to get to that point -- four years of anti-science propaganda and denial of the reality of climate science.
“Fortunately, state and local governments have taken the lead on this issue and America has begun to reduce its carbon footprint. But as we harvest this low-hanging fruit, I think it's time to start focusing on the basics. Only a partnership between the government, America's still-great research universities and the private sector can develop and implement the technological fix to the climate crisis. The research, development and deployment of renewable energy technology should be our highest national priority.”

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