A remarkable achievement wiped out for no good reason

March 29, 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan was in many ways a remarkable achievement. It took a regulatory approach to addressing limits on emissions, whereas other approaches are preferred (such as carbon taxes) but were not viable in the Congress. The EPA approach followed the agency’s 2009 endangerment finding, which concluded that the current and projected concentrations of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” The plan was released on August 3, 2014, after receiving 3.8 million public comments. That is an incredible number, and it highlights the open democratic process. All of this process has probably now been destroyed with a cavalier stroke of a pen.

The Clean Power Plan is remarkable in terms of its flexibility and implementation by individual states. It contains building blocks and ways forward to make more efficient coal plants, more effective use of gas plants, increased use of renewables, and better energy efficiency—all of which are exceedingly valuable goals even without reductions in carbon dioxide, because they cut down on unsustainable and wasteful practices and pave the way to lower energy costs. Why wouldn’t all Americans want to do that?

It would be one thing if the White House had given due consideration to the elements of the plan and what parts are unacceptable. But no such assessment has taken place. Instead it appears that all the work has been cast aside for no good reason. It is not as if the Clean Power Plan has been replaced with anything else that provides alternative incentives for greater efficiency and more sustainability, although a reformulation might do that. The rollback does not appear to take into account the economic costs of climate and weather extremes, already several tens of billions of dollars per year for the United States alone. Hence the benefits of climate action were evidently not considered when drafting the order.

This step, and others likely to follow, will be devastating for the climate system. The United States is responsible for more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than any other country, and has a moral and ethical obligation to lead the world out of this quagmire—and to help compensate other countries in various ways, including building resiliency, planning for adaptation to global warming, and transferring technology to vulnerable nations. Air quality will suffer. And the world is now a huge step closer to irreparable damage to the climate system. These kinds of steps make it much more likely that the planet will exceed a 2 degree Celsius rise in global mean surface temperature, which will result in disruptions in farming and ecosystems that will make them no longer viable in current forms.

The executive order is bad news for the United States and the world. The United States loses in terms of leadership and influence; others, including China, take over. US industry falls behind in terms of needed new technology. This action is not just “sad,” it is irresponsible. It could and should mean tariffs on US goods—the penalty for failing to live up to pledges made in Paris. It will likely mean that other nations follow suit, and we race to the bottom: Let’s see how rapidly we can destroy the global commons of the atmosphere, with no regard for the entire planet, our children, and future generations.

My hope is that wiser heads prevail, and the science of climate and climate change is properly taken into account.