09/16/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Politicians Save Your Breath: Your Reasons Against Climate Action Are Old and Irresponsible


The Intermountain coal-fired power plant in Delta, UT. Image Credit: arbyreed/flickr

This was originally posted on EDF Voices.

In the debate over President Obama's proposal to address climate change, at least one important question has been overlooked. Opponents of his plan should have to answer this:

"Is it responsible to have NO limits on carbon pollution from power plants?"

That is the current situation -- there are zero limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which are the largest sources of this type of pollution, emitting about 40 percent of carbon emissions in the United States. As far as I can tell, all Members of Congress who have announced opposition to the president's plan also opposed the 2010 legislation to limit carbon pollution through a market-based system. None of them have since proposed a policy that would lead to any substantial reductions in carbon pollution. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that they are content with the status quo of no limits at all on this dangerous pollution from its largest source.

Although few of them seem to have been asked this question on the record, we can predict their responses:

Immediately Fall Back on Their Talking Points: That the president's plan will harm the economy and sacrifice jobs. This response doesn't address the crucial question, and is the same tired argument that's been made against every major environmental proposal in history--and then disproven. For instance, environmental protections put in place under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments have generated benefits to Americans that exceed costs by more than 30 to 1. And this response ignores the much higher costs of allowing climate change to proceed unchecked -- Hurricane Sandy alone may cost $65 billion. (Storms such as Hurricane Sandy are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting will occur with a changing climate.) Then there are the wildfires that burn twice as many acres as they did forty years ago and the costly droughts in agricultural areas, both of which are intensified by man-made climate change. There are many other costly impacts, as well. But mostly, the economic talking points of opponents to the president's plan don't answer the question.

Claim that Man-Made Climate Change Hasn't Been "Proven": There's little to say about this response except that it's false. The National Academy of Sciences and the science academies of every major developed nation have endorsed the scientific consensus on climate change. As have all the major American scientific professional organizations. As have 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific studies. Members of the public who don't have time to follow the science may have questions (though most of them agree climate change is happening anyway), but Members of Congress have no excuse to continue to deny what scientists are telling them. This "unproven" line is simply a dodge to avoid having to accept the need to act.

Point Out that Carbon Pollution in the U.S. Is Dropping: While it is true that there has been a temporary drop in industrial emissions due in part to the natural gas boom and slower economic growth, emissions are still at dangerously high levels.

Claim that Carbon Is "Not a Pollutant": Well, actually, the Supreme Court says it is. But, even so, this is a semantic argument. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we produce are trapping more and more heat in the Earth's atmosphere, with dangerous consequences.

Claim that Other Countries Aren't Acting, So Why Should We: This is false and backwards. The European Union already has a climate pollution limit which guarantees that -- whatever the temporary fluctuations due to market conditions -- their pollution will be cut by 1.7 percent every year, 80 percent to 95 percent by 2050. China has begun to test cap and trade systems in key cities and provinces. In fact, 10 percent of the world's population and a third of its GDP now come from areas limiting pollution. They need to do more, but the United States - historically the world's largest emitter, and still the largest per capita -- has to lead. Is it ever the case that the U.S. goes last in the face of an international threat?

So, please, ask opponents of the president's plan: "Is it responsible to have NO limits on carbon pollution from power plants?" And, if not, what's their plan? There are probably lots of other good approaches to be found -- from both parties and across the political spectrum. Let's start having that debate.