What a Climate Action Plan Could Mean for America

President Obama plans to deliver a major speech on Tuesday, June 25, outlining his vision for a national plan to address climate change. Ever since the president mentioned his upcoming speech, people have been asking me what this could mean for our country. Here are some answers to the questions of why we need this plan and what it could accomplish.

Why does America need to respond to climate change now?

Climate change is the central environmental crisis of our time. It is a global crisis with local footprints. It touches us all, wherever we live. Last year, across the continental United States, we had our hottest year ever. Worst drought in 80 years. A fourth of our corn crop just withered and died. Ranchers couldn't feed their cattle. The Mississippi River got so low in places barges ran aground. Wildfires burned nine million acres of our forests and fields. Superstorm Sandy killed more than 130 Americans and destroyed thousands of homes. Months later, families were still living in tents and motels.

What is the connection between extreme weather and climate change?

Climate change is the stage this plays out on. Warmer temperatures mean more energy in our atmosphere, so, when storms brew, they pack a wallop. Rising sea level - that's climate change - means more destructive storm surge. Heat. Drought. Fires. Storms. This is what climate change looks like, what scientists have been warning us about for decades. We're paying the price for inaction now, and the cost is rising fast.

What is climate change costing us right now?

Last year alone, U.S. taxpayers spent nearly $100 billion - about $1,100 per person, on average - to cover crop losses, flooding, wildfires and other climate-related disasters. That's more money that we spent on education, or transportation. In fact, when you take mandatory entitlements and defense spending out of the mix, it was 16 percent of federal spending. Sixteen cents on the dollar. That's what climate change is costing us right now. We've got to turn this around.

What’s the most important step we can take to confront climate change?

The single most important thing we can do, as a nation, is to reduce the dangerous carbon pollution coming from our largest source, our power plants. Carbon in our atmosphere is what's accelerating climate change. There's no doubt about that. And there's more carbon in the Earth's atmosphere now than at any other time in human history. One reason why: our power plants. Nationally, they account for about 40 percent of our carbon footprint.

Don't we already have rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants?

Astonishingly, there are no federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution these plants can belch into our atmosphere. Now, think about that. We don't allow these plants to pump unlimited amounts of soot, sulfur or mercury into our air, nor should we. Why should they be able to choke our atmosphere with the carbon pollution that is driving climate chaos? It just doesn't make sense.

Do we need Congress to act in order to limit carbon pollution?

Congress passed the Clean Air Act four decades ago. It gives the president the authority, and the duty, to set limits on this carbon pollution. That's been affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. It's time for us to move forward. Under a plan the NRDC has proposed, the Environmental Protection Agency could develop safeguards under which each state would have its own carbon reduction target, tailored to its specific energy mix. Utilities would have the flexibility to find the most cost-effective way to hit the target. Some might improve boiler combustion efficiency or add pollution control gear. Others could shift their generating mix toward more wind, solar and other low-carbon options. Still others could provide incentives for consumers to invest in efficiency, so they can do more with less. Many would come up with some combination of these.

How much difference would carbon standards make?

Huge. We can cut our power plant carbon emissions by 26 percent using this approach. That would cut our total carbon footprint by 10 percent. That's substantial. The president has set a goal of cutting our overall carbon pollution 17 percent by 2020. This would set us on the right path.

Would carbon standards raise rates for consumers?

Based on what private-sector economists have calculated about potential savings from energy efficiency, we found that this plan could actually save consumers up to $700 a year on their electric bills, by reducing the amount of energy that's wasted in the average home. That's real money for our families.

What about the costs to the utility companies?

We looked at that question with help from ICF International, a leading energy, finance and defense consulting firm. We relied on ICF’s economic model – the same one used by many in the utility industry and by the EPA - and our analysis found that cutting this carbon would cost the utility industry about $4 billion a year by 2020. This industry had revenues of $371 billion in 2011, so we're talking about costs in the range of 1 percent of industry revenues. The national benefits, by the way, vastly exceed those costs: up to $15 in health and climate change benefits for every dollar we invest to cut this carbon pollution. That's a strong return on a vital investment in our future.

What else can we do to fight climate change?

We need to invest in efficiency, so we can do more with less. And we need to promote the use of wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. Last year, wind turbines generated 3.5 percent of our electricity, nationally. Wind generation has doubled since Obama took office in 2009; solar generation has quadrupled. And the Department of Energy says that, by 2030, we can get 20 percent of our power from wind.

Will the president say anything about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline?

We're a long way from hearing from the White House about the tar sands pipeline. The State Department is working its way through more than a million public comments about that, as part of the preparation of its final Environmental Impact Statement. Then, the State Department will begin to assess whether the tar sands pipeline is in our national interest. It's not. We're confident that's what the State Department will determine, when all is said and done.

Is there a trade-off in the works with environmentalists getting carbon standards and big oil companies getting the tar sands pipeline? 

There’s no linkage here. And it’s hard to see how there’s any trade-off between a decision that’s announced and one that hasn’t been made yet. The tar sands pipeline is a bad idea. It would be disastrous for our climate. It would pump some of the dirtiest oil on the planet through the American breadbasket to be refined on the Gulf coast for export abroad. It's not in our national interest. It needs to be denied——full stop. And we need to cut the carbon pollution that is driving climate chaos and weather extremes.

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