White House officials acknowledge their climate plan’s limits, but decry inaction

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 19, 2014

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

That was the message from top White House officials yesterday as they grappled with Republican critics of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The officials argued that action, even limited, is preferable to and less expensive than inaction on climate change.

“Some say we should wait, that we should develop the perfect plan,” said Jason Furman, chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the R Street Institute. “Some say we should wait to determine how costly climate is going to be. Climate change is happening, and it’s already imposing costs.”

The message came in response to Republican criticism, intensifying in recent weeks, that the plan and other U.S. EPA climate rules would have a small impact on the overall picture of global climate change. At a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology earlier in the day, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) questioned whether curbing U.S. power sector emissions would be felt at all against the surge in coal consumption from the developing world.

“Isn’t it true that if these rules go through, they’ll be offset by 14 days of Chinese emissions?” he asked, addressing White House science adviser John Holdren and acting head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe. “Wouldn’t you agree that this rule will have a negligible impact on climate change?”

“Any single action will be small,” Holdren shot back. Rather, he said, the administration’s work on climate change should be viewed in a broader context — as a critical, if limited, first step in advancing the country’s energy economy and paving the way to a successful climate treaty with other nations.

An ounce of prevention

Since the launch of EPA’s proposed rule for existing power plants last June, critics and proponents of climate regulation have sparred over everything from the constitutionality of the rule to its practical implementation. But increasingly, Republican lawmakers in Washington have focused on what they describe as an imbalance between the costs and benefits of a rule that would touch on nearly every aspect of the country’s power infrastructure, while, they claim, delivering negligible climate benefits.

Speaking last month before the House Science Committee, Charles McConnell, a former Obama administration assistant secretary of Energy, offered a bleak depiction of U.S. EPA’s efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. If EPA rules are realized, he said, their cumulative impact would avert sea-level rise by less than half a millimeter — about the thickness of four sheets of paper. For a world on course to several degrees of warming, they would limit global emissions by less than 0.18 percent, averting about 0.01 degree Celsius of temperature rise.

Moreover, critics say, the administration’s estimate of the Clean Power Plan’s benefits — which relies heavily on averted health impacts due to pollution reductions — looks far into the future with the final payback not coming until the year 2300.

“How can you ask the American people to wait for benefits that are 270 years in the future?” asked Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, addressing Furman.

Furman responded that many of the health impacts, particularly with regard to respiratory diseases like asthma, would pay off in the rule’s earliest years.

And delaying action now, he added, would only add to the cost that future generations will have to pay when the effects of climate change become unsustainable. As evidence, he pointed to a report released last month by the Council of Economic Advisers finding that each decade of delay would increase the cost of climate action in the United States by 40 percent.

Avoiding a new ‘tragedy of the commons’

Inaction on climate change — particularly at the international level — is sometimes likened to the “tragedy of the commons,” a conceptual framework where the interests of individuals supersede the interests of a group. Because the effects of climate change are global and far-reaching, the thought goes, it is difficult for societies and individuals to rationalize sacrificing their own well-being in the present.

But as the world’s largest economy and, until very recently, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States has a special role to play in leading the world’s transition from fossil fuel to a clean energy economy, Holdren said.

The Clean Power Plan “will have a small impact on global temperatures if you neglect the leadership role the U.S. plays,” he said.

Nor would the country be moving alone, he added. “Both India and China are taking more actions than most Americans realize,” he said. China, in particular, has aimed high, setting standards for wind and solar development, setting carbon intensity targets and even proposing a carbon market in recent weeks.

As world leaders head to the U.N. Climate Summit in New York this weekend, those commitments, as well as the United States’ own actions on climate change, will be on full display, he said.