An Uncertain Future for the Clean Power Plan

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At the end of the day, the climate is all that matters. Humans have evolved under a certain set of climate conditions, and society has been physically constructed under those same conditions. Dramatic climate change – specifically, a rapid spike in average global temperatures – will force humanity to calibrate a range of entrenched societal practices and will trigger mass displacement. Perhaps these effects occur under our most pessimistic models, or perhaps they line up with more conservative projections. The fact they could, and even likely will happen to some degree makes climate change the only existential threat to the global community.

From just about any measure, the global power structures have declined to take requisite action to combat the fast-approaching calamity of a changing climate. There are global agreements in place to take action, but few are binding, and those that are, like the Paris Agreement of 2015, don’t carry penalties relevant to make a superpower (or even 2nd or 3rd-tier global economy) flinch. We’re frogs in a slowly-boiling pot – comfortable enough for now, but getting to the point of discomfort. Any sane person gets out before it boils over. We don’t have that option.

The Clean Power Plan

In the climate change arena, no large nation – not even Germany, which has put forth the clearest effort – has truly taken a stand in the face of industry opposition and economic nerves. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, announced in 2015, was the most aggressive and direct effort yet, a bill the former president called “the single most important step that America has ever made in the fight against global climate change.” While it was not the international effort necessary to truly changing the climate change calculus, it was a positive step and a symbol of American leadership.

The plan takes aim principally at reducing carbon pollution emissions from power plants by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. The EPA estimates over $30 billion in benefits, including: “Emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants [being] 90 percent lower compared to 2005 levels, and emissions of nitrogen oxides [being] 72 percent lower. Because these pollutants can create dangerous soot and smog, the historically low levels mean we will avoid thousands of premature deaths and have thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond.”

It is a true Federalist plan, as it creates a partnership between the federal and state governments that requires states to implement individually designed and federally approved emission reduction guidelines. The plan recommends strategies, like emissions trading markets and energy efficiency standards, and offers incentives for early investments in renewable energy production, but does not dictate a path for individual states to take.


Frankly, a 35% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels won’t be enough to save us on its own. One plan is a drop in the bucket. But perhaps a flood of enforceable, economically-beneficial plans can add up.

A short lived effort

Sadly, it seems that the new governing coalition in the United States is set to gut President Obama’s attempt before we – and the world – get to see its results. By the time this article runs, it’s likely that President Trump will have issued an executive order halting, and perhaps replacing, Obama’s plan, in what EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt calls “an effort to undo the unlawful approach the previous administration engaged in, and to do it right going forward with the mindset of being pro-growth and pro-environment. And we can achieve both.”

Perhaps Pruitt is right, but it does give one pause to consider that he is the man who, as Attorney General of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 13 times, often in concert with fossil fuel interests, to block environmental regulations in the state.

More likely, the United States will lose its leadership position not only on a global issue, but also in the extremely valuable technologies behind renewable energy. At this very same moment, China’s leadership is planning to invest over $360 billion into renewable production by 2020 to create jobs and reduce air pollution. China is already the world’s top solar generator, and will reap the economic benefits moving forward.

As President Trump promises to create jobs in coal country (which aren’t coming back), he arguably misses the larger picture – that the jobs of the moment are in renewables and infrastructure (one of his favorite talking points, and a smart path to take). Jobs in the solar energy production industry have doubled since 2012, and the energy production of America’s installed solar production base rose by 97% in 2016 alone. More and more established energy and technology players – from AES to General Electric to the rising Tesla/SolarCity conglomerate – are directing research and development funding to energy efficiency and storage. History has shown that private industry is often ahead of the economic curve, setting the stage for the future.

State and local governments pick up the reins

The Clean Power Plan set in motion a mechanism for the federal government to work with states to reduce emissions and mitigate the unavoidable damages of climate change. Now that the federal government has made it clear that it will not be the driving force, individual states aren’t waiting around. 34 out of 50 states have already submitted Climate Action Plans, with traditional economic powerhouses like California and New York leading the way with aggressive emissions reduction targets that outpace the federal standard. Even Louisiana – a deep red state with an economy built on fossil fuels – has seen significant emissions declines over the past decade and has instituted a number of programs aimed at improving energy efficiency and developing technologies to grow the renewable sector.


Counties, cities, and smaller neighborhood units are also taking initiative. The Cleveland Climate Resilience & Urban Opportunity Plan seeks to build a“robust network of community development corporations that help to shape development efforts at the neighborhood level and public policies citywide”, efforts that include implementing weatherization strategies and preserving ecosystem services. Concepts like Cleveland’s plan did not exist even in the recent past, and as thousands of communities take similar steps, one can start to see the outline of a grassroots success story.

Many who write on climate change like to end on an optimistic note. That’s fair – hope must prevail. But gosh, it’s hard to look at the science, the trends and the action taken and come away feeling bullish. Growing global inequalities will look far more stark when large coastal cities are no longer habitable, or where scarce agricultural land becomes truly arid.

As citizens, we make a choice whether to actively preach empiricism or to fall back on intuition that “it doesn’t feel much hotter.” Have you made yours?

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