More Steps Forward on Climate Protection

A year ago this week, on a sweltering afternoon at Georgetown University, President Obama announced his Climate Action Plan designed to start cutting dangerous carbon pollution using his authority under our clean air and energy laws already on the books.   “As a president, as a father, and as an American,” he said, mopping his brow in the heat with a neatly folded handkerchief, “I’m here to say we need to act.”  The speech resonated around the country and around the world.

In the year since then, the Obama administration has taken steady steps to carry out the promises in the Climate Action Plan.  The biggest step, of course, was the June 2nd launch of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan – standards proposed under the Clean Air Act putting the first federal limits on more than two billion tons of carbon pollution released each year from the nation’s fossil fuel burning power plants. 

Many more steps, large and small, are recorded in a one-year progress report issued by the White House on Wednesday.   Two of the most recent actions, taken this week, deserve their 15 minutes of fame.

First in the spotlight is a new energy efficiency standard issued on Wednesday by the Department of Energy for a little known home energy hog – the fan that circulates air from your furnace and air conditioner.  That little device can use more energy than a new refrigerator and new dishwasher combined.   According to my colleague Elizabeth Noll, furnace fans sold under this efficiency standard over the next three decades will save as much electricity as 47 million homes use in one year.  When combined with more than 30 other new or updated appliance standards finalized since 2009, DOE is more than two-thirds of the way to achieving its goal of using efficiency standards to cut cumulative carbon pollution through 2030 by 3 billion metric tons.

Across town, carrying out another Climate Action Plan commitment, EPA proposed on Thursday to approve a new set of climate-friendlier refrigerants for various air conditioning and refrigeration applications, under the Clean Air Act’s “significant new alternatives program” (SNAP).  These coolants – an assortment of hydrocarbons and fluorocarbons – have far less heat-trapping power (global warming potential or GWP) than the super-potent HFCs and HCFCs they will replace.  And expected as soon as early next month is another SNAP proposal to pull off the market some of the most damaging HFCs, because safer alternative are available – action that NRDC and other groups requested in “un-SNAP-ing” petitions filed several years ago.  This proposal will include deadlines to end the use of the coolant known as HFC-134a in car air conditioners, now that there is an alternative with 1300 times less heat-trapping impact.  Deadlines also will be set for moving away from high-GWP HFCs in important segments of the commercial refrigeration, foam blowing, and aerosol markets.  

Up on the Hill, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced the Super Pollutants Act of 2014, a bipartisan bill to help reduce a variety of short-lived climate pollutants, including HFCs.  Among other things, the bill would enhance EPA’s authority under the SNAP program and extend existing anti-leakage provisions applicable to other chemicals (CFCs and HCFCs) to cover HFCs as well, encouraging HFC recovery and reclamation.  The bill expresses support for the U.S. proposal, together with Mexico and Canada, to phase down HFC production and use worldwide under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that saved the ozone layer and also took a big bite out of climate pollution.  NRDC applauds Sens. Murphy and Collins for this effort, which lends support to EPA’s steps to implement the Climate Action Plan and represents a rare glimmer of across-the-aisle cooperation on climate protection.

The Supreme Court addressed climate change this week too.  On Monday the Court backed EPA’s Clean Air Act authority to curb carbon pollution for the third time in seven years – the third strike for climate deniers and others still swinging at the Clean Air Act.

The president’s plan, and the steps taken to implement it over the past year, are having an impact on international negotiations to reach a new climate agreement to slow and reverse the rise of global carbon pollution.  The goal is to reach agreement in Paris in December 2015 on actions by all of the world’s major emitters to limit their emissions after 2020.  The Climate Action Plan, with its target of reducing our emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, has helped the U.S. establish a measure of credibility with China, Europe, and the world’s other big polluters.  Early next year the U.S. and other countries will put their offers on the table for reductions after 2020, in preparation for the talks set to conclude at the end of the year in Paris.  “We’ve got to lead by example,” the president said on Wednesday night, speaking to the League of Conservation Voters on the one-year anniversary of the Climate Action Plan.  “They’re waiting to see what America does. And I’m convinced when America proves what’s possible, other countries are going to come along.” 

Back up on the Hill, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) held a colloquy on bridging the gap between coal-state and coastal-state Democrats on climate change.  Sen. Manchin said:  “We are going to fix this together, not as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans, as the world leaders we always have been. We have been looking to find the balance, and we will find the balance and show not only America but the world that we can look past our differences to better this world.”

What’s evident on the anniversary of the Climate Action Plan is that President Obama is fully committed to making a lasting mark in the struggle to avoid catastrophic climate change.  A year ago, the president told the Georgetown students, “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”  At the LCV dinner on Wednesday, he told a story of how a stonecutter can hammer away on a stone a hundred times, with no apparent effect. 

But then one day, the rock splits open -- not because one person comes up or one President comes up and strikes a mighty blow, but because of all the work that has gone on before.   Our work.  So until the day comes that the rock is split, we’ve all got to take turns pounding.  We’ve got to keep fighting.  We’ve got to keep mobilizing.  We’ve got to keep making sure that your voices are heard in Congress, in state capitals, in city halls.  Because that’s the only way we’re going to build the kind of future that we want -- cleaner, more prosperous, more good jobs; a future where we can look our kids in the eye and tell them we did our part, we served you well, we were good stewards, we’re passing this on.