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Obama Looks to the Clean Air Act as Inspiration for Tackling Climate

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A little while ago, President Obama revealed the details of his Climate Action Plan, which describes the first-ever federal regulations on restricting carbon dioxide (CO2).

The plan has three main prongs, and many minor ones. The first is to cut CO2 emissions stateside. The second is to “prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change,” including sea level rise, fires and coastal flooding. The third is to “lead international efforts in a coordinated assault to combat global climate change and prepare for its impacts.” He outlined these in his speech.

The cornerstone, however, of Obama’s plan for at home emissions reductions involves finalizing the creation of carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. These plants are the countries “largest concentrated source of emissions, says the Plan, which details the EPA‘s new role in helping reducing these emissions through the creation of carbon pollution standards. An effort that began last year,  but met with much resistance.

To pave a smoother road for these standards, President Obama, during his speech, recalled the creation of the Clean Air Act of the 1970′s. At the time of its inception, Congress realized that cutting air pollution and building the economy through the creation of new technologies could go hand-in-hand, and also protect human health and clean the air. The Clean Air Act passed the Senate in an unanimous vote. Only one vote was cast against it in the House.

Obama also recalled that six years ago, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases (GHGs) are covered by the Clean Air Act’s definition of air pollutant. Later, the EPA determined GHGs to be pollutants that endanger public health and welfare. This cleared the way for the possible regulation of these gases. Today, with approximately 40% of U.S. total carbon pollution being emitted from power plants, yet  no federal limits on how much can be emitted, Obama simply declared, ” That’s not right. It’s not safe. And it needs to stop.”

Obama then called on the EPA to put an end to limitless dumping of carbon pollution by creating carbon standards for existing and new power plants, and to develop the standards in an open and transparent way. He said doomsayers will say this will kill jobs and crush the economy. They did this with the Clean Air Act, he said, as well as with other groundbreaking environmental legislation. An example? The phase out of CFCs to stop the destruction of the ozone layer. Obama half-jokingly said this “didn’t kill refrigerators, or air conditioners or deodorant.”

His main point about tackling climate change in the end was not to fear change, but seize it as an opportunity. The Clean Air Act can serve not only as a sort of blueprint for this, but an inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. bencorc 4:09 pm 06/25/2013

    Carbon Dioxide is not “pollution”. On top of that, only 0.01% of voters in a national Gallup poll during the last election listed “global warming” as a major voting issue.

    The “climate agenda” (globalwarmingism) is a tragic DISTRACTION from the real issues impacting the environment worldwide:

    1) Habitat Destruction/Fragmentation
    2) Poaching
    3) Pollution

    Shame on Obama and shame on all the PHONY, self-proclaimed “environmentalists” who have hijacked the global wildlife conservation and environmental movement for themselves, to promote their unpopular anti-carbon agenda.

    Do these people know or care how many species VANISH every minute, as they WASTE our time ranting about climate, as rain forests continue to be eradicated, lands continue to be bulldozed, and roads continue to be cut into the heart of Wilderness?

    No. And meanwhile, global temperatures have not risen in 20 years.

    Wake up, people:

    1) Habitat Destruction
    2) Poaching
    3) Pollution

    These are the real issues affecting the environment.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Owl905 4:59 pm 06/25/2013

    “Carbon Dioxide is not “pollution”.” This statement displays a complete ignorance of the word pollution. It is an excessive by-product of human activity that can have bad or dangerous consequences. The 40% GHG excess fits that definition to a T. Calling on the Clean Air Act as an inspiration only demands one criticism – why wasn’t it done earlier?

    Link to this
  3. 3. outsidethebox 8:46 pm 06/25/2013

    Can he ban coal exports by executive order? Because if he can’t, it will all be meaningless.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Sisko 9:25 am 06/26/2013

    Based upon the Supreme Court’s ruling the EPA has a responsibility to defend the levels that it has determined GHG to be pollutants. They are inviting lawsuits that will delay or prevent enforcement of any new regulations if they were to implement new regulations not supported by valid science.

    That is getting increasingly more difficult since it was modeling that was much of the scientific basis to claim CO2 is harmful to humanity and that modeling has now been proven to be unreliable. It will be very interesting to see how the EPA tries to demonstrate why the specific levels set for power plants is based on valid science that shows a higher level is harmful to Americans

    Link to this
  5. 5. sault 10:58 am 06/27/2013

    Sorry Sisko, but CO2 traps heat and we’re alread seeing its effects through warming temperatures, rising seas, melting ice and a general uptick / intensifying of climate-related disasters. Read a scientific paper or two on the subject and maybe then you’ll understand.

    Link to this
  6. 6. ochar 3:55 pm 07/1/2013

    Being Panamanian by a miracle have allowed me to know the true history of Panama, less the of USA. Thanks to modern media, such as this internet, at least we can access information, which even if mixed with lies, at least, we can discern the truth.

    By these means, recently I met unknown details of the dispute between Edison and Tesla, both brains imported to the USA, that today allow us to judge that it was a ridiculous competition to gain market.

    The U.S. government chose right thing of both, and this is what makes to a nation great. But the ridiculous competition to gain market persists, because it is the common.

    Oceanogenic Power, hydropower, cheap, renewable, clean, scalable, enough, and near USA, is the solution for those who seek the Truth.

    Link to this

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