For a long time, the threat of climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions was distant and abstract. But the evidence suggests it’s now an immediate reality. Globally, the last five years have been the hottest five on record.
Melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, severe droughts and hurricanes — all provide a picture of what a warmer planet will bring, if it hasn’t already. A recent poll found that nearly half of Americans think they are being hurt by climate change “right now.”
So you might think a federal body called the Environmental Protection Agency would be doing all it could, within reason, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the harm of the carbon dioxide already pumped into the atmosphere. But President Donald Trump’s administration has chosen a different approach that places the immediate interests of coal companies and miners ahead of everything else.
The Obama administration attacked the danger with its Clean Power Plan, which for the first time set limits on such emissions from power plants, with the goal of slashing carbon output by a third from the 2005 level. It was intended to encourage the shift that was already underway nationally away from coal to natural gas and renewable sources of power.
That plan was blocked in court, but emissions fell from 2005 to 2017 anyway. Since then, however, they’ve been rising. And the EPA’s “Affordable Energy Plan” would impede progress by keeping coal-powered plants around far longer than they would have lasted under the CPP. It would let states decide how much to cut emissions — if at all. The main effect is likely to be rising carbon emissions.
That’s not all. One big bonus from the CPP would have been curtailing air pollution that causes heart and lung disease, asthma, bronchitis and other ailments. It would have prevented at least 1,500 premature deaths per year by 2030. By contrast, according to the EPA’s own analysis last year, the new policy would cause at least 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 and 48,000 cases of “exacerbated asthma.”
We can hope that states will adopt more ambitious standards than the EPA demands. This month, the Sierra Club said, “It’s critical that the [Gov. J.B.] Pritzker Administration and Illinois officials step up with stronger leadership to deliver more aggressive pollution reductions from aging power plants.” We can also hope that cheaper, better alternatives will minimize the damage from this new program.
Despite Trump’s support, use of coal is now the lowest it’s been since 1979, and production is down as well. In May, the nation’s third-biggest coal company, Cloud Peak Energy, declared bankruptcy. Seven other coal firms have done so since 2015. A recent study found that “local wind and solar could replace approximately 74% of the U.S. coal fleet at an immediate savings to customers. By 2025, this number grows to 86% of the coal fleet.” These sources, of course, don’t generate greenhouse gas emissions.
The coal industry is not coming back, however much some would like it to happen. Coal is the past. But by trying so hard to keep it in use, the administration puts a cloud over the future.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE