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June 2 2014 9:03 AM

President Obama’s Mandate on Global Warming  

Coal burning is the biggest contributor to human-produced carbon dioxide in the U.S.

Photo by Shutterstock/abutyrin

Today, President Obama is expected to announce major news: The Environmental Protection Agency will have new regulations to aggressively cut carbon pollution from the nation’s coal-burning power plants.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

This is huge. While there have been some relatively minor pushes for alternative energy production and reduction in pollution from other sources (such as cars and other vehicles), there has been no action on coal plant pollution for decades. This is despite the fact that coal burning accounts for a whopping one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted in the US.

Carbon dioxide is the biggest long-term human-generated contributor to global warming—other molecules like methane and water vapor are also greenhouse gases, but their levels are more or less constant; the amount of anthropogenic CO2 has been going up steadily for decades and is higher now than in any point in human history. And of all the sources of CO2 made by humans in the U.S., coal-fired plants are the biggest.


The details of the new EPA regulations haven’t been released yet, though there have been several articles written about what they can and might do. I strongly urge you to read what’s been posted at ThinkProgress, Mother Jones, and especially the New York Times. Overall, this sounds like a great idea to me, though I’ll wait until I get the details to decide how I feel about the new regulations.

But that’s not what I want to discuss. Instead, let’s turn toward what is just as inevitable as the rise of our sea levels: Republican obstructionism of the new EPA rules.

Over the past few years there have been attempts to create legislation to reduce our contribution to global warming. However, these efforts have essentially always been blocked, and it’s almost always been along party lines … with the Republicans on the wrong side of the issue. Their obstruction has been draped with claims ranging from outright denial that there’s even a problem—and these have been legion—to saying that this legislation will hurt our economy.

As far as this hurting our economy, that doesn’t have the ring of truth to me. As the Mother Jones article points out, states will be able to determine the best way to reach these new goals, whether it’s through scrubbing emissions, or relying more on “alternative” energy production like solar panels and wind. This sounds more like economic opportunity to me, not a hobbling of growth.

But that won’t stop what will be an effort largely backed by the GOP to stop the enforcement of the new EPA rules at any cost. I can say this confidently based on vast amounts of evidence of past behavior (and, as the articles linked above point out, the current gathering of the troops by the right about these new regulations).

It’s virtually been a GOP party plank to deny that global warming exists, or that if it does it's not caused by humans, or that if it is it’s not as bad as scientists say, or that it’s actually good for us (take your pick of these mutually contradictory statements). Marco Rubio, James Inhofe, Paul Broun, Lamar Smith (chairman of the House Science Committee!) and more have all made such ridiculous claims.

And their strategy is becoming more transparently bogus as time goes on. House Speaker John Boehner had the temerity to claim, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” a hugely disingenuous statement. I’ve got news for you, Mr. Boehner: You’re a lawmaker, and you damn well should be well-informed on not only what is now a solidly backed piece of scientific fact, but also one of the biggest issues facing our nation today. Not only that, but I can happily supply you with a list of dozens of scientists who can provide you with those facts … if only you’d listen to them.

As far as the new EPA regulations go, there are laws that were enacted years ago that essentially make sure the EPA enacts them; Talking Points Memo has the details. Still, in a more rational world, the president could’ve worked with Congress on the new EPA regulations to ensure smooth sailing for this, but of course the way things are that’s impossible. The outcome of trying that has been played out over and again, and is always the same.

Look: One thing the past few years have made very clear is that “reaching across the aisle” to the Republicans on certain issues is useless. They have done everything they can to obstruct any progress being made on a host of topics, including and especially doing anything about global warming. They’ve been disingenuous, cried conspiracy theory, feigned ignorance, and held egregiously falsely balanced hearings, all to downplay just how serious a threat climate change is.

Polls show the public is concerned about global warming. Scientists are clearly worried about it, and that’s because the threat is quite real. Yet Republicans do nothing, or worse, actively block anything getting done. I have no doubt they’ll do the same here. So, in my opinion, even if he didn’t have to, the president circumventing them would be the right thing to do.

Still need convincing? The U.S. military is also concerned about global warming; they have long taken it seriously and worked to understand how it will affect our national defense. In fact, global warming was recently rated as a “severe threat” to our national security by a military advisory board made up of retired generals and admirals.

And yet, in the act funding the Department of Defense for Fiscal Year 2015, the Republicans in the House added an amendment funding the Department of Defense specifically prohibiting any money be spent on researching global warming.

Yes, you read that right. The GOP told the United States military not to spend a single penny on a “severe threat” to national security. Remember that when a House Republican says they are strong on national defense.

When a columnist for Market Watch—which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.—is saying the GOP is threatening national defense, maybe it’s time they started paying attention.

It is no exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world are on us right now on this issue. China—the largest CO2 polluter on Earth—will be carefully examining what we do here. So will many other countries.

One of the reasons I am so very proud of my country is that historically we have been a nation of leaders and innovators. At our greatest, challenges to us are seen as opportunities, not chances to turn our backs and cravenly kowtow to special interests.

Global warming may be the single biggest challenge we as a nation and a planet have ever faced.  It’s time our lawmakers stood up and faced it.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  



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