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Tackling Carbon Pollution

by Rudy M. Baum
June 9, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 23

It’s a start.

That’s the charitable way to characterize President Barack Obama’s climate-change policy, which was announced with great fanfare last week. The centerpiece of the new policy was the pledge to reduce “carbon pollution” from power plants by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. This is to be accomplished by a variety of approaches on a state-by-state basis through negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency. This convoluted strategy is necessary because Republicans in Congress resolutely refuse to address climate change.

As Senior Correspondent Jeff Johnson points out in our lead News of the Week story (see page 7), it’s not clear that the 30% reduction in carbon pollution is as significant as it is being made out to be. Nevertheless, the President’s plan—which includes calls for changes in the transportation sector, increased energy efficiency in homes, preparing for the impacts of climate change, and new international efforts to address it—is a clear signal that the U.S. government takes this challenge seriously. That’s progress.

Not surprisingly, the plan was greeted with vitriol. Perhaps the most over-the-top bit of demagoguery came from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “Today’s announcement is a dagger in the heart of the American middle class, and to representative Democracy itself,” he inveighed.

“The President’s plan is nuts, there’s really no more succinct way to describe it,” chimed in House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“This rule is all pain, no gain,” according to Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R), the ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. “Clearly, this Administration prioritizes pushing a far-left environmental agenda over providing affordable, reliable electricity across the country.”

Coal-state Democrats, while less strident than Republicans, were just as adamant. “I strongly oppose President Obama’s attack on Kentucky’s energy industry,” said Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, on her website. Grimes is running for McConnell’s Senate seat this fall. “This Administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky’s coal industry, crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs.”

In a statement, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) was more measured, but no more sanguine. “There is no doubt that 7 billion people have had an impact on our world’s climate; however, the proposed EPA rule does little to address the global problem with global solutions. Instead, today’s rule appears to be more about desirability rather than reliability or feasibility, with little regard for rising consumer prices, the effects on jobs, and the impact on the reliability of the electric grid.”

A couple of observations: There’s an interesting example of “framing” in “The President’s Climate Action Plan.” As far as I could tell, carbon dioxide—that innocuous, nontoxic gas that is driving climate change—is mentioned only four times in the 21-page plan. CO2 has morphed into “carbon pollution,” as in the following: “Power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the United States, together accounting for roughly one-third of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions. We have already set limits for arsenic, mercury, and lead, but there is no federal rule to prevent power plants from releasing as much carbon pollution as they want.” This is smart politics, akin to Republicans framing the estate tax as a “death tax.”

More important, all arguments that it is somehow wrong to impose higher costs on consumers of fossil fuels are specious. Climate change is a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons.” Fossil fuels are cheap because, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have treated the atmosphere as an open sewer for disposing CO2. Until the external costs of burning fossil fuels are incorporated into their price, alternative energy sources can never be economically competitive with fossil fuels.

If we are going to get serious about climate change, we have to increase the cost of burning fossil fuels, especially coal. A carbon tax is the most straightforward approach to this. The President’s plan, which at least anticipates a cap-and-trade approach, is a start.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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