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Clean Air and Climate Change: Two Books to Get You Going

01/02/2016 11:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2016

A couple of years ago, my extended family gathered for Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. Looking across a splendid vista over the city, my 40-something nephew asked me, "Is it true that 40 years ago you couldn't see the hills on the other side?" Progress, I thought, that he really had no idea how smoggy it used to be. And that's a source of satisfaction for one who spent his career working to clean the air.

But progress brings a new burden: to tell the history of how the air got cleaned up. And to get across what it will take to meet future challenges -- like curbing climate change.

I'm not a historian, at least not yet. Too busy still working to implement the Clean Power Plan, phase down the super-potent HFCs, and things like that. But I am more conscious of the need to tell the story of how we got here and where we're going, and what it means to me, to those coming up now.

Recently I came across two books that tell important parts of the story, by colleagues I've worked with for years -- both published by Oxford University Press and both excellent for college courses (or even advanced high school classes) in climate change, air pollution, or environmental science and policy.

Struggling for Air: Power Plants and the "War on Coal" is a short, deft history of the U.S. Clean Air Act, focusing on coal-burning electric power plants, the nation's largest source of at least four different kinds of the most dangerous air pollution. Written by Richard Revesz and Jack Lienke, director and attorney with the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, their book reaches back 50 years to tell the story of how two presidents (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) and Congressional leaders like Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine forged the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act, and how it has been carried out, in fits and starts, since then. This is the law responsible for cutting American air pollution by 70-100 percent (depending on the pollutant) in the last 45 years, saving literally millions of lives over this period. And it's the law we're relying on now to curb the heat-trapping pollution that drives dangerous climate change.

Revesz and Lienke begin with charges -- relentlessly echoed by coal and power companies, Congressional Republicans, and conservative media -- that President Obama, from out of nowhere and purely by fiat, launched a "war on coal." The authors explain the public health and environmental toll exacted by coal-burning power plant plants' four main pollutants: sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, mercury, and carbon dioxide. They tell how, in the heart of the last age of progressive legislation, Congress came together to enact a powerful and forward-looking clean air law, adopted almost unanimously and signed into law by President Nixon. And they chart how the law was carried out -- with fits and starts but steady progress -- by the seven presidents before Obama. If there was a war on anything, it was on pollution, not coal, and it began not in this administration, but with a bipartisan consensus half a century ago.

Revesz and Lienke point to what they see as the Clean Air Act's "tragic flaw" -- the decision to put modern pollution controls on new power plants while "grandfathering" existing ones from most controls. The break given to existing plants was justified on what turned out to be the false premise that they would retire at age 30 and be replaced by new plants equipped with state of the art controls. Instead, it turned out to be cheaper to refurbish the old clunkers and keep them going indefinitely under lax pollution limits or none at all. As a result, we have dozens of coal plants that were designed to be replaced decades ago, but are still running after more than 60 years. The authors explain, however, that the Clean Air Act that is already on the books contains provisions that are finally being used to curb pollution from these grandfathered plants, and they show that the Obama administration's cross-state pollution rules, standards for mercury and other toxic pollutants, and the Clean Power Plan are -- despite the naysayers -- well-grounded in the Clean Air Act and in precedents from prior presidents, including Clinton and both Bushes.

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know is an extremely readable history of climate science and projection of the future impacts in store if we don't dramatically curb carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants. Written by Joseph Romm, who founded and contributes to the excellent Climate Progress blog, it also explains the technologies and policies we can look to for solutions.

I ran into Romm at the Paris climate conference last month, before the agreement was sealed. He asked how I was feeling, and I replied: "I'm optimistic within a pessimistic framework." I think that describes Romm's attitude as well. The book is filled with clear-eyed detail on the hazards we face as the seas rise, the ice melts, and droughts, floods, and storms become more intense. He's particularly effective explaining "positive feedbacks" that are highly likely to make basic impacts worse. For example, higher arctic temperatures are melting the permafrost layer that holds billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane; as those pollutants gas off into the atmosphere, they make warming go even faster.

But there's hope in this book too. Finished just before the Paris climate conference, it describes the many steps being taken by the U.S., China, Europe, and many other countries to dampen their emissions and tilt their energy systems towards cleaner power sources. The Paris Agreement gathers up the carbon pollution reduction commitments of nearly 190 countries, and commits them to review progress and up their game every five years. It mobilizes new money for developing and deploying cleaner energy technology around the world, and to help poorer countries cope with the impacts we can't avoid.

As Romm foresees, we have already diverged from the doom-laden high-emission pathway we've been on, to a low-carbon transition, but we have much more to do stop catastrophic warming. The Paris Agreement commits the world to bring global emissions "into balance" -- i.e., to net zero -- in the second half of this century. We already know how to get much of the way there. Public support is there, and it will only grow stronger as the dangers continue to reveal themselves. It'll be the work of the next two to three generations to figure out how to get it all done.

When I went to college, and then law school, we were just starting to figure this stuff out. There were no courses, to speak of, to teach us the law, the engineering, or the economics we'd need. It's been a lifelong-learning project for me, as it will be for the young people coming up now. But these books, and others, can give them a step to stand on, as they start on the task ahead.

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