It is getting harder and harder to ignore the freakish and downright dangerous weather swirling around every part of the globe, giving firm evidence that climate change is already making a mess of things for us all.
In addition to floods and droughts, it’s getting hotter, with last year standing as the hottest year on record in the continental United States (a full 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th Century average), and seven of the 10 hottest years on record occurring since 1998. The U.S. is not alone in this; globally, the 15 hottest years on record for Earth have all occurred since 1998.
We just went through a drought that decimated Illinois’ corn crop, rivaling the days of the Dust Bowl. And, nearly half of the country remains in this condition for a third straight year. When it has rained, it’s been uncommonly intense, with incredible flooding along the Mississippi River and Illinois’ waterways, following immediately on uncommon drought conditions.
None of this should be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to scientists warning the public that this stuff was coming for decades due to the carbon pollution we’ve been sending into our skies. And in May, heat-trapping carbon dioxide in our atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, the highest level in human history.
If that isn’t enough to convince you it’s time to take action, there’s a pocketbook issue, too. U.S. taxpayers paid nearly $100 billion responding to damages caused by last year’s extreme weather events associated with climate change. That is more on climate change emergency response, property loss and cleanup than on education or transportation.
We cannot afford it anymore. But like so many things in our nation’s capital today, action to offset the damage has been completely mired in political gridlock. That is why NRDC put forth a proposal that has been steadily gaining traction. As we have shown, the Clean Air Act provides the duty and authority for the president to act on this massive threat to our economy and way of life, and the Supreme Court has agreed.
In our view, if Congress won’t act, the President can and must. That is what happened earlier this month when President Obama laid out his national climate change initiative, a comprehensive package of proposals for confronting the central environmental crisis of our time that is rapidly becoming an existential crisis.
We haven’t seen details of the president’s plan yet, but NRDC’s approach - which he could use -promotes needed investment in efficiency, so we can reduce energy waste and do more with less while also better integrating wind, solar and other renewable power sources.
And it takes aim at the heart of the problem - carbon pollution from antiquated coal plants, which account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint. Astonishingly, there are no federal limits on how much of this pollution our power plants may release. That doesn’t make sense. After all, we limit the amount of mercury, sulfur, arsenic and soot these plants may emit. It’s time to set common sense limits on carbon pollution, too.
The proposal features a strong federal/state partnership that allows maximum flexibility to states and energy companies to achieve emissions standards for each state, recognizing critical differences across our country in how energy is made.
We can economically slash coal plant carbon pollution by 26 percent by 2020 at an estimated cost to energy companies of about 1 percent of their revenues ($4 billion in 2020). Moreover, the change to clean energy will result in up to $15 in health and climate benefits for every $1 invested. Plus the embrace of efficiency could save families up to $700 annually on their electric bills by reducing wasted energy.
The president’s plan will likely create incentives for a fast-growing sector of our economy: the green goods and services sector that already employs 3.4 million Americans. They’re weatherizing homes, making electric cars, manufacturing energy-efficient appliances and building wind, solar and other renewable power sources.
If you’re looking to create economic growth in this country, add jobs and make our workers more competitive, then renewable energy and efficiency aren’t just part of the mix - they’re helping to drive growth. After all, wind accounted for 36 percent of our new electric generating capacity in 2011 and 2012, nearly three times as much as coal.
Predictably, before Obama could even lay out the framework of his plan, the polluters and their Capitol Hill apologists were on the warpath with poisonous pessimism about America’s ability to lead and innovate, corrosive attacks on science and scare tactics they have used for decades to delay common-sense protections for our health, safety, economy and environment.
Climate change is a global problem. It’s exactly the sort of big problem that America has repeatedly met with energy and inventive power that has improved our lives and secured a better future. The world needs our leadership again.
We are facing a major threat to our interests and values from pollution. We know where the pollution is. Now we have to go after it. Last year made it clear we can’t afford not to.
Henry Henderson, a Granite City native, is director of the Midwest Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.