If carbon dioxide emissions were purple and pungent, instead of colorless and odorless, the clean-power standards President Obama announced Monday wouldn’t be necessary. Public outcry over the smelly purple haze would have long ago prompted Congress to put a price on carbon pollution and make alternative energy sources far more competitive.
But the 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide that America pumps into the atmosphere each year are invisible, and the effects of climate change are gradual. That has helped fossil-fuel interests thwart sensible, market-based efforts — such as a carbon tax that would be rebated to consumers — to reduce the heat-trapping emissions.
In the face of congressional gridlock, Obama’s plan, the final version of a proposal he first made in June 2014, represents the next best way to change the energy mix at home and demonstrate U.S. seriousness ahead of global climate talks later this year in Paris.
For all the complexity of the new rules, the basic plan is straightforward. TheEnvironmental Protection Agency gives every state a target for reducing emissions from its electric power plants. Each state has a variety of options for reaching its goal.States will have until 2016 to submit initial plans and until 2022 to start cutting, two years later than in the original proposal. If the plan survives legal and political assaults — a big if — carbon-dioxide emissions from existing power plants will be 32% lower in 2030 than they were in 2005.
Will all this solve the climate change problem? No. Power plants are the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but they represent only 32% of the total. So the administration’s plan would take care of about one-third of one-third — or about one-ninth — of domestic emissions. And unless other major emitting nations such as China follow suit, the U.S. reductions will be swamped by increases elsewhere.
Even so, the Clean Power Plan is an important piece of a larger climate strategy, and well worth doing. It will improve public health by reducing soot emissions from coal-burning plants. It will boost renewables such as solar and wind power. Most significant, it will give the United States far more leverage and credibility in the upcoming international negotiations. The U.S., the world’s second-largest carbon emitter after China, can hardly expect other nations to curb emissions if it is unwilling to do so itself.
The longer the world waits to act, the greater the risk that the damage will be irreversible. As Obama put it Monday afternoon, “Climate change is no longer just about the future that we’re predicting for our children or our grandchildren; it’s about the reality that we’re living with every day. … There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.”
Opponents of the president’s plan trotted out the usual dire warnings about rising electric bills and economic ruin, particularly in the states most dependent on coal-burning plants. But the history of environmental regulations has been that markets adjust and industry’s claims of doom turn out to be overstated.
States have already been moving away from coal for power production, particularly toward inexpensive, cleaner-burning natural gas. And focusing strictly on electric bills overlooks the high costs of extreme weather events — such as this week’s drought-driven wildfires in California and flooding in Florida — that scientists say are exacerbated by global warming.
Those are the visible manifestations of the hidden buildup of greenhouse gases. In other words, what you can’t see can hurt you.
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