President Donald Trump’s most recent Environmental Protection Agency rollback was unveiled Aug. 21 as the Affordable Clean Energy Rule.” The purpose of the plan is to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. While these title descriptions may sound similar, the plans couldn’t be further apart.
The Obama administration’s plan was to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. Trump’s plan is a carefully crafted gross misnomer. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule at best will not impact the Obama-era efforts, but at worst could impede or reverse the progress made.
Progress has been impressive despite the Supreme Court’s 2016 block of the Clean Power Plan and Trump’s attempts to replace the plan. Leaders like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Jerry Brown have given rise to an alternative leadership movement at city and state levels where widespread moral inclinations to do the right thing still prevail. Industry leaders (e.g., Unilever PLC, L’Oreal SA) have also stepped up in an unprecedented cross-industry movement charging fellow private sector operators to incorporate environmental awareness into their business ethos.
While this is heartening, reaching the Clean Power Plan’s emissions reduction may still not be enough. A recent report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated that we’ve already set in motion processes that are going to continue to reinforce themselves (e.g., ice melting begets more ice melting). This means that we are already locked into certain impacts of climate change that no amount of carbon emissions reduction can stave off, but we can slow it down and give ourselves more time for science and tech solutions while also adapting to a rapidly changing planet — referred to by the report as a “Hothouse Earth.”
Trump’s plan should then more aptly be named the “Path to Hothouse Earth.” His current title and plan are irresponsible, negligent and truly asinine.
Trump’s plan artificially props up an ailing coal industry. Coal has been giving way to alternative sources of energy because they are more economically viable and scalable. Despite this, millions of dollars have been poured into technology solutions to make coal-fired plants fully renewable. States like North Dakota are leading research and development into “clean coal” innovations.
But again, we are on a time crunch. The planet is rapidly heading towards a hothouse future; investing time, attention, and resources to weaker energy options is neither smart nor responsible.
It must be stated that over half the world’s primary energy consumption is still low-grade coal, like the lignite coal of North Dakota. Advancing technologies in clean coal would be undoubtedly beneficial if globally scaled and applied to worldwide carbon capture. However, such broad-scale application of still very early innovations is diverting precious energy (no pun intended) from our very real energy problem.
The good news is that Trump’s plan is likely to pan out as illegal. The Clean Air Act charges the EPA to regulate air pollution. Trump’s plan to return regulatory oversight to the states, and the subsequent variation in emissions standards by state, is unlikely to hold up in court.
Think of this as if we were going to allow smoking sections back again on planes. The idea that the decisions of our neighbors can negatively impact our health and well-being through the form of secondhand smoke — or fossil fuel burning resulting in polluted air — is now archaic. States like Maryland and Pennsylvania have already taken the EPA to court over neighboring states’ coal-fired plants producing air pollution that doesn’t seem to respect state borders. Pollution drifting downwind from West Virginia to congested city centers, like Washington, is one example of why carbon emissions control has been the EPA’s job in the first place.
Reversing steps in the right direction and delaying further steps forward is unjustifiable. The EPA knows its actions will result in additional 1,400 pollution-related fatalities a year. Will the concocters of these policy measures be allowed to get away with murder? Will they be allowed to get away with ignoring scientific consensus and moving us even quicker towards a “Hothouse Earth” outcome? Probably not, but they also shouldn’t be allowed to get away with not doing their jobs.
Obama’s Clean Power Plan was a start, but the EPA needed to regulate emissions even more strictly to avoid a hothouse future. Congress must demand the EPA do the job it has been tasked with and protect constituents’ air quality across state borders.
Sweta Chakraborty, Ph.D., is a policy and communications fellow with The Center for Climate and Security.
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