With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set to announce proposed rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants Monday, the American people are already hearing the same tired arguments from the big polluters and their Republican allies. Sight unseen, the polluters have been characterizing the rules as part of a “war on coal” that will kill jobs and impose unfair costs on industry. Don’t believe them.
Their claims are exaggerated at best, and flat-out lies at worst — and they look at only one side of the ledger, ignoring the effects of carbon pollution on the rest of us.
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases cause our atmosphere to warm, with the consequent changes we are seeing in weather, storms, and seasons. The added heat contributes to the formation of toxic ground-level ozone, which is harmful to breathe and is a cause of the "bad air days" in my home state of Rhode Island. And don't overlook our oceans, which absorb about a third of the carbon pollution being emitted and most of the excess heat. As a result, oceans are becoming more acidic, water temperatures are increasing, and sea levels are rising across the globe. This is all virtually indisputable, and follows immutable laws of science.
It also has real, measurable costs for American citizens: damage to coastal homes and infrastructure from rising seas and erosion, asthma attacks in children triggered by smog, forests dying from beetle infestations and unprecedented wildfire seasons, farms ravaged by worsened drought and flooding. This other side of the ledger counts too.
Jobs are indeed at stake in this debate, but not just the fossil fuel jobs that the big polluters defend. Clean, green energy jobs are booming; there are already more American jobs in the solar industry than in coal mining. And carbon pollution costs jobs. As an example, fishermen in Rhode Island have seen their winter flounder catch nearly disappear in recent decades as the winter water temperature in Narragansett Bay has risen by 3 to 4 degrees.
The 50 dirtiest American power plants emit more carbon dioxide than all of Canada or South Korea.
Our military — along with major corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Motors, Ford, Microsoft, and Apple — understands climate change could affect the planet in perilous ways, and is already turning to energy alternatives and increasing energy efficiency.
As for claims of so-called “unfair costs” of these new carbon-pollution limits, take them with a grain of salt. There is a long history of polluting industries exaggerating the costs of public health measures. For one, Clean Air Act measures have proven to be a bargain. According to EPA’s 2011 estimate, the benefits of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 will exceed the costs by 30 to 1 by 2020. In 2010 alone, they helped prevent more than 160,000 premature deaths, 86,000 hospital admissions, 13 million lost workdays, and 3.2 million lost school days for our kids. Environmental protections have proven time and again to have clear net benefits for the American people, contrary to the one-sided predictions of the polluters.
Here’s the bottom line: Excessive carbon pollution is bad for our health, bad for our environment, and bad for our economy — and the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States is power plants. Indeed, the 50 dirtiest American power plants emit more carbon dioxide than all of Canada or South Korea. Right now there are no limits on the carbon pollution these plants can spew into our atmosphere and oceans.
President Barack Obama and his team at EPA will change that. If the big polluters don’t like the change, many of us will work with them on a legislative alternative — perhaps an economy-wide price on carbon pollution that could generate a financial benefit for taxpayers and provide transition assistance to affected industries. But the big polluters can’t just keep dumping their pollution on the rest of us. Doing so might be free for them, but the costs are too high for us. Their long holiday from responsibility has to come to an end.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a US Senator for Rhode Island and the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.
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