Defending Our Victories

Some of our biggest environmental wins are under attack. That's why it's more important than ever to stand up to opponents of climate progress.

Last year marked a watershed for environmental progress, with essential strides in protecting our air, waters, wildlife, and lands, capped off by the historic climate accord in Paris.

It's time now to consolidate the progress we've already made and build on those gains in the year ahead. Because even as we look forward to President Obama delivering his annual State of the Union address next week, the state of our environment remains imperiled.

We appear to have just wrapped up the hottest year since global recordkeeping began in 1880, judging by official temperature data for the first 11 months of the year. As climate change brings hardship and risk to our people at home and abroad, we're bracing for more of the rising seas, widening deserts, heat, drought, wildfires, and floods that are hallmarks of climate chaos. And the Republican leadership in Congress, with no plan of its own for addressing this global scourge, is pressing its big-polluter agenda with a continuing assault on the commonsense safeguards we all depend on to protect our environment and health.

In this important year, it's vital that we all make our voices heard and let our lawmakers know, in Washington and in the states and cities where we live, that we care about the kind of future we're creating for our children and that we expect real action to protect the world they'll inherit.

Climate change remains the central environmental challenge of our time. Last year, President Obama launched the single biggest effort ever to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that's warming the planet and threatening our future. His Clean Power Plan will help clean up the dirty power plants that account for 40 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint.

Republican leaders in Congress have vowed to kill this good plan, and some in the fossil fuel industry and their political allies have filed suit in federal court to try to block it. We need to make sure it survives these attacks. The Clean Power Plan is on sound legal ground, as we're confident the courts will find, and it's going to enable us to cut carbon pollution from our power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The task ahead is to make sure the states develop effective plans of their own to hit the target. Many are moving forward to make sure their people benefit from efficiency investments and more clean power from the wind and sun while doing their part to strike a blow against climate change. Others, though, are bowing to the interests of big polluters that want to anchor our future in the dirty fuels of the past. We can't let this foot-dragging slow us down.

In the first 11 months of last year, average global temperatures were 0.87 degrees Centigrade above the long-term average. There's more we must do to meet the goal set in Paris of holding global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C. above preindustrial levels.

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take another step forward, finalizing a rule to improve the fuel efficiency of the big trucks that move 70 percent of the products we all use, from fresh tomatoes to radial tires. The big rigs make up about 4 percent of U.S. highway traffic, but they account for 20 percent of the fuel we burn on the road and a comparable share of our carbon footprint from vehicles.

By adopting new technologies and designs to reduce truck weight and engine idling time, employing advanced engines and transmissions, and using more efficient tires, these trucks can save 75 billion gallons of fuel by 2027. That's good news for truckers, it's good for our environment, and it fits hand in glove with our commitment to double fuel mileage in the cars we drive to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

The EPA is also finalizing standards to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas operations and working toward a global accord aimed at limiting hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in our atmosphere, reducing the levels of those powerful greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

It's important, as we move forward, to keep the opponents of progress from derailing our gains.

Also targeted by the EPA are nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. When factories, power plants, cars, and trucks release those gases, they can combine with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, a type of air pollution linked to serious respiratory ailments such as asthma attacks and acute bronchitis among children. New standards the EPA made final last fall aim at reducing ozone levels in the air we breathe to no more than 70 parts per billion, down from the current limit of 75 parts per billion, which scientists said left too many at risk.

Industry has several years to comply, but, for big polluters and their political allies, that's not good enough. They've filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to try to overturn the EPA's new rule and deny us the health benefits that would come with it.

Reducing ozone will prevent hundreds of premature deaths each year, hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks among children, and nearly 200,000 missed days of school or work, providing the country with health benefits worth up to $8 billion nationwide -- as much as four times the cost of compliance. The rule will actually save many billions more each year, because reducing the pollutants that help produce ozone also cuts down on fine particles that pollute our air and threaten our lungs.

The Republican leadership in Congress has taken aim at those benefits, with bills pending in the House and Senate that seek to nullify the new standards. If the measures pass, they deserve a swift veto from the president.

Having already trained its sights on needed progress on climate change, the Republican leadership is also trying to impair our ability to implement existing laws and to do away altogether with long-standing protections. A bill pending before the GOP-controlled House would set up a nine-person commission empowered to bulldoze through every federal regulation on the books and cherry-pick those it would like to discard. Businesses would lose the certainty of knowing the rules of the road. Legal costs would soar for state, local, and tribal governments trying to implement the law. And the commonsense safeguards we all depend on would be suddenly, and capriciously, endangered.

Little wonder the White House has signaled the president will veto this legislation -- H.R. 1155, the so-called Searching for and Cutting Regulations That Are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act -- if it ever makes it to his desk.

A similar threat is out on H.R. 712, a House bill that would dim the voice of citizens' groups and weaken their ability to hold federal agencies to account for enforcing the law.

If an agency fails to implement rules required by law, citizens and groups like NRDC have the right to ask the courts to compel the agency to do its job. Often such cases result in a settlement that requires the agency to fulfill its duty by some specific date. Under the pending Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act, though, a third party -- like a big polluter that doesn't want environmental protections implemented at all -- could step in to derail such a settlement.

That runs counter to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that forbids third parties from blocking legal agreements reached between a defendant and a plaintiff. It also defies common sense: If you and I settle a dispute, who is a third party to jump in and disrupt our accord?

There's plenty more on the horizon we'll need to focus on to make 2016 a year of growing momentum for the change we need to leave our children a cleaner, safer, and more hopeful world.