The heat is on

Our view: The in­ter­na­tional fight over cli­mate change could now turn on a sin­gle fed­eral ap­peals court de­ci­sion in a case to be ar­gued to­day

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

This past sum­mer was the hottest in recorded his­tory and pos­si­bly in thou­sands of years. But the swel­ter­ing streak re­ally ex­tends much longer, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, with record land and sea sur­face tem­per­a­tures for 16 straight months, which rep­re­sents the long­est such trend in 137 years.

There’s not much se­ri­ous de­bate within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity about why this is hap­pen­ing. The rapid ex­pan­sion of hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties in the in­dus­trial age that have en­hanced the “green­house ef­fect” through which emis­sions trap heat within earth’s at­mos­phere are at the heart of the prob­lem. The so­lu­tion? To dras­ti­cally re­duce the amount of car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gases that civ­i­liza­tion spews into the air.

That ef­fort now faces what could prove a crit­i­cal turn­ing point as oral ar­gu­ments in a law­suit aimed at over­turn­ing the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s Clean Power Plan are sched­uled to be heard to­day in the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Dis­trict of Columbia. If the EPA can’t reg­u­late car­bon emis­sions from coal-fired power plants, there is lit­tle chance the na­tion — and pos­si­bly the world — can fore­stall the im­pend­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter.

Why? Be­cause power plants burn­ing fos­sil fu­els are the largest sin­gle gen­er­a­tor of car­bon diox­ide and rep­re­sent about 40 per­cent of to­tal car­bon pol­lu­tion. Congress has al­ready made it clear that it is wholly in­ca­pable of pass­ing needed leg­is­la­tion. Law­mak­ers from coal-pro­duc­ing states are sim­ply too great a hur­dle, and the pol­i­tics have got­ten too po­lar­ized, with con­ser­va­tives of­ten sid­ing with crack­pot de­niers rather than rec­og­niz­ing the com­pelling ev­i­dence pre­sented by ac­tual cli­mate ex­perts.

How did it come to this? Nine years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that car­bon diox­ide can be reg­u­lated as a pol­lu­tant, but that was in the con­text of new cars. Reg­u­lat­ing power plants may prove even more con­tentious. The Supreme Court sig­naled as much when it stayed the Clean Power Plan in Fe­bru­ary and kicked the case to the Court of Ap­peals.

Here’s the prob­lem: States can at­tempt to reg­u­late power plant emis­sions — as Mary­land al­ready has done un­der Gov. Larry Ho­gan — but air pol­lu­tion doesn’t re­spect state bor­ders and typ­i­cally drifts from one place to an­other. Un­less the courts up­hold the Clean Power Plan, the prospects for the U.S. to achieve any se­ri­ous re­duc­tion in green­house gas gen­er­a­tion would seem nil. If that’s the case, global ef­forts may fall apart as well.

That leaves Mary­land in an ex­cep­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion. With 3,100 miles of ti­dal shore­line, Mary­land would suf­fer greatly as sea lev­els rise. By the year 2100, for in­stance, the state could see high tides on the At­lantic Ocean and Ch­e­sa­peake Bay six feet above where they are to­day — and far worse dur­ing se­ri­ous storms. Ocean City, An­napo­lis and down­town Bal­ti­more would be dev­as­tated, or per­haps re­lo­cated (if fu­ture lead­ers have suf­fi­cient fore­sight), with bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of prop­erty un­der­wa­ter.

Op­po­nents of the Clean Power Plan have ar­gued that it will lead to the shut­ter­ing of many coal-fired power plants and in­creased elec­tric­ity costs for con­sumers. But that hasn’t been the re­sult of state reg­u­la­tions to date. Even if there is an ad­verse im­pact on elec­tric­ity prices, the re­duc­tion in pol­lu­tion comes with a huge wind­fall for tax­pay­ers — fewer com­mu­ni­ties dev­as­tated by floods, spar­ing busi­nesses and res­i­dents and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars. And there are the thou­sands of jobs cre­ated by greater in­vest­ment in re­new­able en­ergy and the health sav­ings ac­crued from hav­ing fewer of the more nox­ious pol­lu­tants like sul­fur diox­ide or ni­tro­gen ox­ides that are gen­er­ated by burn­ing coal.

We can ap­pre­ci­ate the eco­nomic chal­lenges that have hit coal-pro­duc­ing states like Ken­tucky and West Vir­ginia. But the well-be­ing of the planet and all its in­hab­i­tants can’t be sac­ri­ficed to meet the short-term in­ter­ests of com­mu­ni­ties that have de­pended on min­ing jobs. States have failed to reg­u­late power plant emis­sions suf­fi­ciently, and the EPA must be al­lowed to act un­der its Clean Air Act author­ity. The con­se­quences of fed­eral in­ac­tion — and the road­block to in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion that it would rep­re­sent — are too alarm­ing to even se­ri­ously con­sider sid­ing with the plain­tiffs.

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