Climate change finally gets attention

Climate change finally gets attention

June 30th, 2013 in Opinion Times

President Barack Obama wipes sweat from his head during a speech on climate change at Georgetown University in Washington.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Finally there is a plan to begin moving this country away from the continued generation of carbon dioxide emissions and jump-start the work to slow climate change.

President Obama's announcement last week to use his executive authority to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants and finalize rules for new plants got lost amid news from the Supreme Court.

But the president's action to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to draft standards limiting carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning industries and power plants is a long-overdue game changer.

At least we need to hope so, because we are running out of time. Actually, we're running out of our children's and grandchildren's time.

The dangers of climate change are rising as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation over the globe increase atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

In March that concentration passed 400 parts per million -- a measure not seen for several million years, according to scientists analyzing the best available evidence in core drillings at sea and on land. The carbon concentration rise is on pace to climb far higher in coming decades unless emissions are curbed.

The sad news is that this effort must come through presidential use of executive power because Congress is being Congress: Partisan, belligerent, dysfunctional, dithering -- choose your descriptor.

Even power companies -- the biggest carbon makers -- have seen the handwriting in the steam of their coal scrubbers (not to mention the rising red ink on cleanup costs from things like coal ash spills).

The Tennessee Valley Authority has been preparing for some time, albeit with the added incentive of states' and environment groups' lawsuits. TVA has reduced emissions by 23 percent since 2005.

Obama's goal -- cut emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 -- are modest, perhaps too modest. But it's a beginning, and that's something more than Congress has been able to cobble together in its sad efforts beginning in early 1990s when President George Bush pioneered a cap-and-trade system to deal with acid rain.

Serious climate change watchers have long advocated a price on carbon to reflect the damage to society caused by carbon emissions. Those advocates have called for a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax -- whatever politicians wanted to call it.

In effect, that extra cost would make low-carbon technologies more attractive in the marketplace while deterring the use of carbon-intensive fuels such as coal.

TVA, like all cost-conscious businesses, looked to its bottom line when deciding to convert several coal units to natural gas some years ago. But Congress continued to play games. In 2009, a cap-and-trade bill passed the House barely, but the Senate couldn't pass the companion bill.

The congressional follies continue today. Now House Speaker John Boehner calls such a plan "job killing" regulation and a "fleecing of the middle class."

Obama had to act, because this Congress can't find its way to the corner, let alone home. This Congress would throw out the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, so we certainly couldn't expect these good elected men and women to come together on a Save-the-World-As-We-Know-It Act.

We certainly can expect the president's effort to meet with opposition. Without question, his use of executive authority will just infuriate many congressional members. Some already have suggested that combating climate change is a "war on coal."

Hardly. We all like to turn on our light switches, but coal isn't the only tool we have. More importantly, it's no longer the cheapest tool we have, even before any carbon taxes or other carbon pricing method is devised.

If Congress won't get behind the president on this effort, the nation can. Come mid-term elections, we can vote.

In the meantime, Obama's action is welcome.

As he said: "We don't have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society."