Scariest Christmas, and Hope for a Cooler World

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Smithsonian Magazine has posted some unusual portraits of jolly Saint Nick and asked readers to vote for the Scariest Santa.  Here’s my choice:

                              Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art

It’s a 1939 Christmas card from a Hungarian-born American artist named Ralph Fabri.  Surely penned against the turmoil of World War II, today it calls to mind the grave dangers of runaway global warming.   

2011 has been a year of extraordinary extreme weather.  Take a look at NRDC’s Extreme Weather Map.  At least 2,941 monthly weather records were broken by extreme events that struck communities in all 50 states of the U.S.  Floods in the Midwest.  Searing drought in Texas.  A hurricane washing away bridges in Vermont.  Thousands of heat and smog records trashed across the country.  

Fourteen disastrous weather events in the U.S. this year have resulted in more than a billion dollars in property damage – an all-time record breaking number.  Their estimated $53 billion price tag doesn’t include health costs.  NRDC scientist Kim Knowlton and her colleagues have shown, in a first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Health Affairs, when health-related costs of extreme events are calculated, the total tally increases substantially and will likely continue to climb due to climate change. Seven of the 14 weather disasters in 2011 – a record-high number – are the type expected to worsen as continued carbon pollution drives dangerous climate change.

The planet burns, but Congress fiddles.  Meddles, actually.  The House Republicans forced 191 votes this year to weaken or repeal our public health and environmental protection laws.  That includes repeated votes to block or rescind the Clean Air Act provisions that the Supreme Court has twice ruled make it EPA’s job to protect our health and well-being from dangerous carbon pollution. 

Fortunately, virtually all of these measures died in the Senate.  President Obama, Senate leadership, and the House minority stood firm in showdowns over funding bills in April and December, to defeat “riders” that would have blocked clean air standards for carbon and other pollutants.

Facing an out-of-touch, do-nothing Congress, it falls to President Obama to use the tools he already has to fend off climate catastrophe.  And the president took important steps in 2011 to use those tools to begin cutting climate-changing pollution.  In July, he announced a second historic clean car peace treaty, supported by nearly every automaker, extending carbon pollution and fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks through 2025.  Carbon pollution from 2025-model vehicles will be cut nearly in half, and cars will go twice as far on a gallon of gas as those sold just a couple of years ago.  With fewer trips to the gas station, consumers will save money every month – the savings will total thousands of dollars over the life of the car.  The standards are good news for the auto industry’s recovery and are creating thousands of new jobs

The next order of business is to clean up the nation’s power plants, which release more than two billion tons of dangerous carbon dioxide each year – more than any other industry and more than all our vehicles.  The Obama EPA took huge steps to clean up other kinds of power plant pollution in 2011.  Standards announced just yesterday will cut their mercury pollution by 90 percent.  The mercury pollution controls, coupled with an expected shift in generation to cleaner-burning plants, will also sharply cut other pollutants (including the sulfur and nitrogen oxides that form dangerous fine particles), saving tens of thousands of lives and preventing hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, heart attacks, and hospital visits.  Together with standards issued earlier this year to cut power plant soot and smog that drifts across state lines, these are the most important pollution safeguards in more than two decades. 

The Obama administration told the Supreme Court earlier this year that it is also moving on carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants, under a settlement agreement reached with New York State, NRDC, and others (see here and here). Unfortunately, EPA did not meet the agreed-upon schedule and has asked for more time.  While discussions continue, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has announced that carbon standards for new power plants are coming early in 2012, and a proposal has been submitted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, the last stop before it goes out for public comment.  NRDC welcomes this important step forward on new plants, even as we will keep pressing for action to clean up carbon from the power plants that are operating today.

President Obama deserves huge credit for cleaning up dangerous carbon pollution from cars in 2011, and for cleaning up other kinds of deadly pollution from power plants as well.  In 2012 it’s time to do the same for power plants’ carbon emissions. 

Cleaner cars and cleaner power plants are critical to fending off Ralph Fabri’s apocalyptic Christmas vision from 70 years ago.  Those are my wishes for the New Year.