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

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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

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

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