Yesterday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a proposal that begins the long process of repealing the U.S.’s key policy for fighting climate change.
That policy is the Clean Power Plan. Introduced in 2015, the EPA rule required existing power plants to reduce their carbon emissions by sending less carbon dioxide (and other carbon gases) out of their smokestacks or investing in clean energy projects. The plan was a major part of the U.S. contribution to the Paris Agreement, the global effort to limit global warming to 3.6°F (2°C) above pre-industrial levels, which experts say is the maximum temperature rise the planet can bear before irreversible shifts in the distributions of food, water, and other resources, along with intensified natural disasters, threaten civilization.
The Clean Power Plan was never implemented—the Supreme Court put it on hold in February 2016 to resolve lawsuits against it, including one led by Pruitt—and so repealing it doesn’t lead to any immediate material change. The repeal also doesn’t necessarily mean that the EPA won’t regulate carbon emissions in the future. According to a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the EPA is obligated to regulate greenhouse gases, and Pruitt legally must lead his agency to do so.
However, there is no deadline that requires the EPA write a new rule by a certain time. And so the repeal’s main effect is to interminably delay the creation of a new carbon-regulating rule to fill the void left by the Clean Power Plan. The repeal proposal notes that the EPA hasn’t decided “if it will issue such a rule, when it will do so and what form that rule will take.” Even if Pruitt does proceed soon—an unlikely proposition—finalizing a new rule will take years.
And that might be the point. Pruitt is a known friend to the fossil-fuel industry, and every year the EPA delays in regulating greenhouse gases is another year for industry to reap profit before the U.S. makes its inevitable pivot away from coal-fired power plants. “I suspect this will drag out for years—many years,” Robert Murray, CEO of coal giant Murray Energy, told the New York Times. “I hope they come up with nothing.”
This deliberate procrastination is both cruel and shortsighted because time is of the essence for climate change. According to NASA, global temperature has risen by 1.4°F (0.8°C) since 1880, and two-thirds of that has occurred since 1975. Every year we wait will make the transition away from fossil fuels more painful and difficult—and push us closer to that 2°C line sooner, increasing risks to people and wildlife.
So even if the Clean Power Plan’s details bore you, its significance—and the symbolism of its repeal—should not. Here are five reasons why its repeal is shortsighted and reckless.
1.) More carbon in the air means worse natural disasters.
It’s an extraordinary time to repeal the Clean Power Plan when wildfires rage across the West—now, through northern California’s wine country—and millions of Americans remain without power after enduring three exceptionally powerful hurricanes.
Wildfires and hurricanes have always occurred, of course, but climate change increases the chances that any given fire or storm will become intense and cause more damage. Just as climate models predict, the western U.S. is drying out and, as a result, it’s a tinderbox; any fire that starts is more likely to develop into an unstoppable blaze. Meanwhile, over the tropical Atlantic, warmer air and warmer ocean temperatures ensure that any hurricane that does start has the fuel it needs—essentially, water vapor—to develop into a superstorm.
Farther north in Alaska, sea ice that once barricaded the land melts early in summer and, as a result, fall storms drive stronger waves onshore, flooding towns, washing away roads, and damaging infrastructure. And in the Chesapeake Bay, rising sea levels are consuming salt marshes, the region’s natural protection from storms.
The more carbon we put in the air, the more intense the effects. In the past few months alone, climate impacts have ruined human communities, displaced and killed wildlife, and exacted economic costs in the billions. The EPA’s intention to take its time writing and implementing a new carbon-regulating rule will further increase the risks and the damage.
2.) Birds and wildlife don’t need the extra pressure.
Birds and other wildlife moving through the American landscape face a veritable obstacle course of roads, farms, factories, and houses. Much of their habitat has already been bulldozed for development, and what remains is often polluted and fragmented.
They have a hard enough go of it as it is—and climate change exerts extra pressure on the safe places that remain. Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report found that, within a century, more than 300 North American bird species will lose at least half of their current ranges due to changes in the climate. Already, Black Rail populations in the Chesapeake Bay have shrunk by 85 percent in 20 years due to sea level rise; threatened Scarlet Honeycreepers (I'iwi) in Hawaii are being pushed up mountainsides by the dual threats of warmer temperatures and avian malaria; and stronger hurricanes have devastated birds in the Caribbean, according to initial surveys. Throughout the country, existing refuges for wildlife are transforming, and not all species have suitable habitat elsewhere to which they can move.
More carbon in the air means more difficult futures for the wildlife that share our world. For them, waiting a few more years to dial back carbon emissions could be catastrophic.
3.) Limiting carbon emissions from coal plants is good for health.
Fossil fuels don’t only release carbon dioxide when they’re set aflame: They also release pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory illness, and lung-damaging airborne particles. Any actions to reduce carbon emissions under the Clean Power Plan would have also kept these pollutants out of the air. Indeed, the plan’s original proposal estimated that, in 2030, it would prevent 90,000 asthma attacks in children, 1,700 heart attacks, and 3,600 premature deaths, while saving over $14 billion in health benefits.
That’s why a coalition of 17 medical organizations, including the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Medical Association, issued a statement in response to the Clean Power Plan repeal. “From elevated levels of dangerous ozone and particulate air pollution due to higher temperatures and worsening wildfires, to increased risks from vector-borne diseases such as Lyme Disease due to the expanding seasons and geographic ranges of vectors like ticks and mosquitoes, the examples of climate-related health risks are far-reaching,” it reads. Pruitt’s repeal proposal ignores all of those health risks to downplay the benefits of the Clean Power Plan, sometimes relying on debunked scientific claims to do so.
It would be one thing if Pruitt had spent his time in office to date writing a replacement rule to reduce carbon emissions that he finds acceptable. But currently there’s no indication that he’s even begun such a process, signaling that he is in no rush despite known harms to public health.
4.) The stated justification for repealing the Clean Power Plan—to end the “war on coal”—is a farce.
On Monday, Pruitt stood on a podium at Whayne Supply, which sells coal-mining supplies in Hazard, Kentucky, and declared: “The war on coal is over.” In doing so, he implied that the Clean Power Plan caused the U.S. coal industry to decline (even though the policy was never implemented) and a revival is now imminent.
However, analysts agree that economic forces—such as the low cost of natural gas and increasing public demand for cleaner energy, which gets cheaper each year—are driving coal’s decline more than environmental policies. Even Murray, the coal CEO, knows coal jobs aren’t going to see a major resurgence.
Yet Pruitt and President Trump have promised out-of-work miners jobs that they can’t deliver—a deceit that undercuts their credibility across the board.
5.) The American people want to cut carbon pollution at power plants.
The national political atmosphere might lead you to believe that there’s an unsettled debate over how to deal with climate change. But in a 2014 survey, led by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a full 67 percent of Americans supported a policy that—like the Clean Power Plan—would set strict carbon-dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fire power plants, even if it meant more expensive electricity. In a similar vein, a 2016 Quinnipiac University poll found that 59 percent of Americans think Trump should not remove specific regulations intended to combat climate change, the Clean Power Plan being the main one.
So, at the end of the day, Pruitt is leading the EPA to repeal a rule that the American people want and stand to benefit from in order to end an invented war on coal. The only Americans who stand to benefit from the repeal—or even a few extra years of unfettered carbon pollution—are the fossil-fuel investors with whom Pruitt spends most of his time.