The next few years are unprecedented in human history. We know with unusually high scientific certainty that the near-term choices we as a nation and a species make about carbon pollution will determine whether or not we will destroy our livable climate in the coming decades — thereby ruining the lives of billions of people irreversibly for centuries to come.
Humanity’s choice (via the world’s leading scientists and governments): Aggressive climate action ASAP (left figure) minimizes future warming. Continued inaction (right figure) results in catastrophic levels of warming, 9°F over much of U.S.
We have no right to destroy the soil (and other elements of a livable climate) for our children and future generations — a point Thomas Jefferson explained was universally self-evident in a 1789 letter to James Madison.
And so we as a nation have a moral imperative to act. The world’s top scientists and governments could not be clearer on that point. Nor could the Pope be in his recent climate encyclical.
We can and should debate what type of action is necessary to act in a moral fashion in these unprecedented times. But it is no longer a rational or moral option to continue being entranced by the Siren song of “technology, innovation, blah, blah, blah” from conservatives like Jeb Bush and other rejectionists. They imply oppose all strategies that could plausibly achieve the kind of steady and serious ongoing reductions we need — such as pricing carbon pollution or regulating carbon pollution.
The stakes behind the CPP are simply too high, as the leading opponents of action have made all too clear. For instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not merely urged states to ignore the law’s requirement for them to put forward a state implementation plan to meet the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan standards. In one of the most shocking statements ever issued by any U.S. political leader, McConnell actually admitted publicly that his goal is to stop a global deal to avert catastrophic climate change. I’ll return to this key point below.
It was the (primarily) conservative opposition led by McConnell that brought down the 2009 House climate bill in the Senate. That opposition left President Obama and the EPA no choice but to put on the table a plan to enact carbon pollution standards for existing power plants.
Obama’s actual Clean Power Plan is the bare minimum the United States can do and remain a moral nation. Here’s why.
The Law Says So
First, it’s the “bare minimum” because the Supreme Court made clear back in 2007 that the EPA is legally obligated to put in place standards to reduce carbon pollution from mobile sources like cars (which it has done) and then stationary sources like power plants (which is what the Clean Power Plan covers) — once carbon pollution is found to be endangering public health, which it obviously is. After Senate conservatives rejected new legislation that would have reduced carbon pollution from power plants, something like the CPP became legally inevitable.
The Rest of the World Is Acting
Second, the CPP is the bare minimum because it’s part of an overall U.S. carbon reduction target that itself is the bare minimum we can do. The current U.S. climate target announced in advance of the big Paris climate talks this fall is a 26 to 28 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. That is “equivalent to 14–17% below 1990 levels of GHG emissions.” We can compare that target to the one from the European Union, which is “at least 40% domestic greenhouse gas emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2030.”
“The US climate plans are at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution,” as the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) puts it. “The reduction target could therefore be strengthened to reflect the United States’ high capability and responsibility.” The CAT is “independent scientific analysis produced by four research organisations tracking climate action and global efforts towards the globally agreed aim of holding warming below 2°C, since 2009.”
The U.S. should be doing at least as much as the European Union if not more, as this chart of cumulative carbon pollution from 1850 to 2011 makes clear.
It is cumulative carbon dioxide emissions that determine a country’s total contribution to the climate crisis. Since the EU is more than two dozen countries, this chart makes clear that the United States is the biggest historical contributor to current atmospheric CO2 levels of any country by far. Again, U.S. inaction is immoral.
At the end of his encyclical, the Pope called on God to “Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out.” So not only do we bear the most responsibility for the current problem, we are the country with the most power and money to do something about it — power and money we achieved to a great extent by fossil fuels.
The Alternative Is Catastrophic
Third, the Clean Power Plan is the bare minimum we can morally do because it’s part of an overall U.S. carbon reduction target that itself is not adequate to avoid the 2°C (3.6°F) total that the world’s leading scientists and governments have repeatedly agreed is the absolute limit the world can risk. That temperature target in turn requires rich countries such as the United States to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 25 percent in 2020 versus 1990 levels — a cut that even our 2025 target doesn’t achieve — and ultimately cut CO2 emissions by more than 80 percent in 2050 versus 1990 levels. Even with the CPP, we are nowhere near that target.
Moreover, a truly rational and moral species would stay as far below 2°C as is technically possible. If that point wasn’t obvious before the last year, it is painfully obvious now. As we reported in May, the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka the world’s leading nations) set up a “structured expert dialogue” from 2013 to 2015 to review the adequacy of the 2°C target. The 70 top climate experts reviewed the IPCC Fifth Assessment report — together with all the science in the past two to three years that the IPCC didn’t make use of. Their bottom line:
“The 2°C limit should be seen as a defence line … that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.
Why? Because “Significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming” (which is about 0.85°C) and so additional “warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Therefore, the ‘guardrail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works.“
And it always bears repeating that inaction is doubly immoral because every major country has the knowledge that action is so damn cheap — especially compared to inaction — because that’s what all the independent economic analyses and all of our real world experience cutting emissions demonstrate.
Press link for more: Joe Romm | thinkprogress.org