Denial by Any Other Name is Just as Dangerous


It has now been about three weeks since the President formally unveiled the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan which sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from the nation’s fleet of power plants.  Despite preliminary estimates showing the standards will avoid up to 150,000 child asthma attacks and 6,600 premature deaths, totaling $93 billion in benefits, and reduce electricity bills by roughly 8 percent, the proposal was met by the usual sky-is-falling hue and cry from the dirty energy industry and anti-science ideologues. 

Less expected, however, has been a new tack opponents of climate action are trying out to obstruct progress.  We’re seeing the introduction of a spate of bills that set conditions that must be met before EPA can move forward, rather than eliminating EPA’s authority outright.   But the conditions would make it impossible for EPA to act.  The bills, in effect, use a scalpel rather than the usual meat cleaver in the hope that no one will notice that the knife is still aimed at the jugular. 

To add further to the misdirection, the bills are often cloaked in proclamations of support for science and clean air.  But any close look will reveal the truth: the bills’ convoluted conditions are designed to ensure the EPA is never able to do its job of cleaning up pollution.    

The good news here is that it appears that many opponents of cleaning up carbon pollution are now afraid of denying the existence of climate change outright.  Equally significant, the sponsors seem compelled to bury the true intent of their bills beneath a sheen of reasonableness and pro-health rhetoric. Our opposition knows it’s bad politics (and getting worse) to deny climate science or to look like you don’t have any solutions. 

However, there is little practical difference between these newer bills and those that simply eliminate EPA’s ability to curb climate change altogether. 

Said another way, denying climate change exists in the face of overwhelming evidence is willfully ignorant.  Acknowledging it is happening while obstructing any chance of solving it is morally suspect.  And the end result is the same under either type of bill: the communities and children suffering the ill effects of air pollution will not see the benefits of cleaning up conventional pollution or of attacking climate change.

Here are some concrete examples of these cynical attempts to hoodwink the public.

Senator McConnell (R-KY) S.2414/H.R. 4808

In June, Senator Mitch McConnell introduced a bill (S.2414) to derail carbon pollution standards for power plants.  The McConnell bill works by setting up a series of tests that must be met before limiting pollution – tests that are inherently impossible to pass.  No public protection would ever be able to go into effect if these legislative tests became standard practice. 

Specifically, the bill sets an impossible threshold by demanding that the Department of Labor certify that carbon standards would result in zero employment loss.  That means if even a single job—of any kind—were to be lost all efforts to address climate change would grind to a halt.  It wouldn’t matter if the loss of that job resulted in better health for millions or if it were offset by the creation of many more new jobs.  The bill also requires the director of the Congressional Budget Office, the Energy Information Administration, and others to meet similarly unreasonable thresholds.

No federal air pollution or safety standard, and no legislation of any kind to our knowledge, has ever been required to meet this type of litmus test.  If it had, the nation would never have been able to clean up acid rain or take the steps necessary to reduce mercury, arsenic, and other toxic pollution that save thousands of lives every year and prevent brain damage in children. 

In short, the McConnell bill is a brick wall to block public protection painted to look like a low hurdle.  To use another metaphor, it exemplifies the growing pattern of wolf in sheep’s clothing legislation we’ve seen from Republicans in both houses of Congress.

Senator Flake Anti-EPA Bill

Another prime example is legislation Senator Flake (R-AZ) announced he would be introducing shortly.  This legislation would require EPA to reduce its budget by the amount it cost any other federal agency to reduce carbon pollution. If EPA did not reduce its budget according to this formula, the proposed standard would be invalidated unless approved by Congress.

Setting aside the irony of a proposal like this coming from a notorious proponent of slashing EPA’s budget to the bone, the bill operates much like the previous McConnell bill by imposing requirements that are both unprecedented and designed to be poison pills.   It should also be emphasized that the bill, if passed, would literally punish the public for the EPA taking steps to clean up carbon pollution.  Here’s how:

If the EPA reduced its budget as Sen. Flake wants to require, its resources to implement and enforce other health and safety standards would be reduced.  Communities could see less clean water, more mercury, more arsenic, and more toxic chemicals in the products they purchase.  On the other hand, if the EPA did not comply, all action to address climate change would grind to a halt, including work to reduce pollution from power plants and further increases in fuel efficiency for our cars and trucks.  

Imposing such a twisted “Sophie’s choice” between the ills of climate change and the harms of other pollution sets a new bar for twisted logic - no previous health or safety standard has ever required the administrating agency to offset the costs of meeting those standards. 

And indeed what would be the rationale for doing so?  If other federal agencies are harming public health through their activities, why shouldn’t they have to clean up their act like any other party?  Why make that harder to achieve?  Is Sen. Flake taking the weird position, especially for a conservative, that the private sector should have to meet a higher standard of health and safety than the federal government itself does?

Bottom line, the Flake proposal has no other plausible goal than to stymie EPA action on climate.  And fulfilling the new anti-EPA modus operandi, Senator Flake made the following statement when announcing his bill:

"We all love and deserve to have clean air, and when I'm discussing these particular concerns I want it to be clear: I'm not in favor of pollution, dirty air or asthma," Flake said.  "Instead, what I'm in favor of, is just a little more common sense from the EPA.”

Proclaiming you are against more asthma and then proposing to shut down the EPA doesn’t sound much like commonsense.  It’s like saying I’m earnestly concerned for a sick patient and then refusing to prescribe any available medicine.   

A better course to addressing concerns would be to put forward solutions.  Senator Flake actually used to offer solutions:  Long ago, he proposed a carbon tax—but that was back before denying climate change became a tea party litmus test.

McKinley-Rahall H.R. 4813

Less convoluted, yet equally pernicious, H.R. 4813 is the definition of putting your head in the sand and amounts to yet another form of denial. 

First, the legislation nullifies the current EPA proposals for cleaning up carbon pollution from new and existing power plants.  Then it puts the development of replacement proposals on ice for five years and finally requires Congress to approve any such new proposal.

Dismissal followed by delay followed by a hurdle no other Clean Air Act (or any other regulation) has ever been forced to meet.   Even assuming the future Congress is no longer bogged down in perpetual gridlock, there is simply no justification for a five-year delay in taking action to turn the tide of climate change.

Delay simply denies the scientific consensus that climate change impacts are already happening, becoming more severe, and accelerating faster that anyone ever thought.   That is why the latest National Climate Assessment declared, “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present” before proceeding to document the findings of scientists from multiple disciplines showing the growing and increasingly severe impacts to every region of the country. 

In five years, this diagnosis will not have changed.  But more people will have suffered the effects of extreme weather, heart attacks and asthma.  

The sentiment behind H.R. 4813 can thus be translated into the equivalent of “I don’t disagree this patient is sick.  We certainly need to do something about it.  But not today.  Let’em suffer.”


Lifting the veil on these bills reveals just how much they fly in the face of science.   At least outright denial has the virtue of transparency.  Those who proclaim their allegiance to science, and then refuse to act on it, even when it means imposing real harm on countless individuals, exhibit a callous disregard that is a true sin of commission.   

The American people deserve better from their elected officials.  Congress should reject these extreme proposals.  And Members of Congress who are concerned about the proposed carbon standards should stop obstructing and instead come to the table and work with the EPA to help formulate a final plan that moves the country forward.  

Anything less is just denial by another name.

photo credit: Dave Johnson, Wyoming, via creative commons