On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency will release a first-ever set of regulations to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the country’s existing fleet of power plants. The agency recently issued similar rules for new power plants, which will be finalized next year after a public comment period. The rules for existing plants will undergo a similar process.
But before the political storm around the rules begins in earnest, here are the basic points everyone needs to know about why EPA’s carbon rules are so important.
It’s The First Step Towards A Global Solution
One of the points the Chamber of Commerce made Wednesday in their premature analysis of the EPA regulations was that, by 2030, the cuts would only amount to 1.8 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. The point is technically accurate — climate change and the greenhouse gas emissions driving it are a global problem — but it assumes U.S. policy occurs in a weird sort of civilizational vacuum.
The projections of future emissions the Chamber used are based on the assumption that business-as-usual continues and that various countries’ climate policies don’t change much. That, in turn, is an assumption about how countries will behave in the future. But as Obama has made clear, half the point of the new regulations is to change the way other countries behave.
America may be the world’s second-biggest carbon emitter, but it remains by far the largest on a per-person basis. It’s also emitted more than any other country historically. And while China and India’s economies are huge, they’re spread over far larger populations than the U.S., and they’re still trying to lift hundreds of millions of their citizens out of very deep poverty. So Americans effectively emitted their way to our current prosperity. Furthermore, because we have so much more wealth per person, we have far more economic room to cut carbon emissions and take risks on developing clean energy than China or India.
CREDIT: The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework
What this all means is that trust and goodwill between countries is enormously important to building a cooperative international response to climate change. Because of its position and prosperity, the United States can’t build that goodwill without taking the initiative to cut its own emissions: “It’s not [that] I’m ignorant of the fact that these emerging countries are going to be a bigger problem than us,” Obama told the New Yorker a few months ago. “It’s because it’s very hard for me to get in that conversation if we’re making no effort.”
So when the next round of global climate talks occurs in 2015, we’ll have a far better chance of actually locking down an international treaty to cut global emissions if the United States has already stepped up. Then we can bring other countries on board with their cuts, and then circle back around in a few years for an agreement to cut more. And suddenly that 1.8 percent isn’t a mere 1.8 percent anymore.
“American influence is always stronger when we lead by example,” Obama said yesterday at West Point. “We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”
Climate Change Is A Threat To America And The World
Because carbon dioxide molecules absorb heat well, the more we dump into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the more heat the atmosphere can absorb. This raises the overall temperature of the Earth as a system, in what’s called the “greenhouse effect” — carbon dioxide and other gases trap heat within the atmosphere, like the glass walls of a greenhouse trap heat within its interior. We can actually measure it: satellites have tracked the heat imbalance as the Earth absorbs more energy from the sun, while ice cores and other measurements show a a long period of climate stability going back thousands of years, followed by a sudden spike in carbon dioxide and global temperatures around the arrival of the fossil fuel-powered Industrial Revolution.
What does all this mean for the Earth’s climate? Hotter average global temperatures mean more heat waves, more wildfires, and faster evaporation leading to more drought. But it also means more moisture in the atmosphere, so precipitation becomes heavier when it does come, and wetter areas become wetter while dry areas become drier. Sea levels rise from ice melt at the poles and cyclones become stronger from the oceans’ rising heat content, leading to more flooding and storm damage on the coasts. The poles heat up faster than the equator, destabilizing global weather patterns. Species and ecosystems collapse on both land and sea as climate change and ocean acidification alter their habitats. Crop production and food supplies are upended, fresh water becomes harder to come by, and vectors for pests and disease increase. Basically, rising global temperatures shift the range of possible weather so that destructive and extreme events become more likely.
The scientific consensus is that global temperatures can warm 2°C before those changes become truly catastrophic, though some research suggests even that threshold is too much. At humanity’s current rate of carbon dioxide emissions, we’re set to blow past that limit and get somewhere near 5°C of warming by 2100. Simply put, that would bring a degree of climate change far beyond anything that’s occurred the entire time human civilization has been on the planet. It might not even be possible, much less likely, for us to adapt to those circumstances.
U.S. Carbon Emissions Are A Sizable Part Of The Problem
At about 14.5 percent of 2012’s global emissions, the United States is the world’s second-biggest producer of carbon dioxide, with China now in first and India in third. That same year, electricity generation made up almost a third of the greenhouse gas emissions from America’s economy, with cars and other vehicles also making up close to a third, and industry emitting a fifth. The rest was filled in by commercial and residential buildings and agriculture, each for a tenth a pop.
EPA’s rules for new and existing power plants will address the electricity sector only, but the rest of President Obama’s climate action plan aims to use the executive branch’s regulatory authority to cut emissions from those other sectors as well — by ratcheting up emission standards for cars, improving energy efficiency in homes and buildings, changing forestry and land-use practices, and plugging the various holes in our economy that release other greenhouse gases such as methane.
So while the carbon dioxide pumped out by America’s power plants is ultimately only a slice of the problem, the regulations to cut them down are the central pillar of the Obama Administration’s interlocking effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in every sector of the economy. And the political, social, and economic effort to sustain that central push will flow into all the other efforts as well.
Congress Isn’t Going To Do It Anytime Soon
It’s been well-documented by political scientists that partisan polarization has increased significantly in the legislative branch over the last few decades, meaning both parties — but the Republicans especially — move more in ideological lockstep.
In 2009, when the Democrats still dominated Congress, that unity actually helped them pass bills like the stimulus, financial regulatory reform, and Obamacare. But policies to cut carbon emissions are different. The benefits are spread across the entire population, and are still mostly to come in the future, while the costs will be here and now and fall the hardest on some specific and very influential groups — namely the fossil fuel industry. So when President Obama and the Democrats tried to push a cap-and-trade bill through Congress that year, moderate Democrats — especially in the coal-dependent states like West Virginia and Kentucky — felt enormous pressure to jump ship. And moderate Republicans were pressured by their own ideological cohort to not jump on board.
As a result, cap-and-trade passed the House but went down to defeat in the Senate. Now that the Republicans have taken back the House, the situation is even worse for climate policy, and it will likely take several election cycles before another chance emerges for Congress to pass something. And we simply don’t have that much time. Global carbon emissions quite literally need to peak within the next few years and then start falling fast if we want a good shot at staying below the 2°C threshold.
Fortunately, Congress has actually already handed the executive branch the tools to address this problem. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 require EPA to regulate emissions that threaten public welfare, and in 2007 the Supreme Court ruled the agency could regulate carbon dioxide emissions if it found they posed such a threat. EPA came to that exact conclusion in 2009, citing the rising seas, stronger storms, heavier floods, more intense heat waves, disrupted food supplies, shrinking fresh water supplies, and increased vectors for disease climate change would bring. By carrying through with the new regulations, the Obama Administration and EPA are in fact carrying out the will of Congress — just not the will of this particular batch of congress members.