Climate Change – We Need More than Obama’s Latest Initiative

Climate Change – We Need More than Obama’s Latest Initiative

photo credit: Jim.Richmond via photopin cc

Obama initiative one arrow in the quiver needed to battle climate change and pollution

By Richard Webster, Staff Attorney, Environmental Enforcement Project and Jim Hecker, Director, Environmental Enforcement Project

The Obama Administration’s initiative on climate change, that was finally announced today, is an important step toward protecting the environment. It is far from a complete solution, though, because it does not go far enough in eliminating the existing subsidy and market protection for carbon-based fuels like coal. 

Fossil fuels are currently heavily subsidized because their price does not include the cost of their pollution on the environment. Economists would say that these huge costs are “externalized” – they don’t show up in the price of fossil fuels such as coal, but the costs are still very real. If carbon-based fuels like coal were priced at their actual cost to the world, they would be uncompetitive with cleaner sources of power.

Predictably, the fossil fuel industry is complaining that the Administration’s initiative will destroy jobs. This is crying “wolf,” however, because the truth is that today’s initiative should create jobs because the economic benefits of a shift from fossil fuels to alternative, clean fuels, far exceed the costs. This imbalance shows that the initiative is a modest one, compared with what would best protect both the environment and our economy. Far more aggressive steps will be necessary if we want to avoid future costs from climate change and current costs from local pollution caused by coal plants.  

Nevertheless, the new plan will reduce some of these costs by making states clamp down on emissions. Government action is only one part of the solution, though, and private enforcement of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act is also a crucial component of a comprehensive strategy to fight climate change. Public Justice has been working, successfully, for more than 15 years to challenge practices that allow coal companies to avoid the full costs of coal. For example, coal companies regularly discharge toxic levels of selenium and dissolved salts into streams, making them biologically impaired and dysfunctional. 

In addition to killing fish and poisoning our waterways, allowing coal companies to simply dump this kind of pollution and stick their costs onto society as a whole artificially hides the real cost of their product.

By forcing coal mines and coal-burning power plants to comply with existing environmental laws and exposing gaps in those laws as they apply to such facilities, Public Justice is one of many groups fighting climate change.

Today, as people debate the Administration’s initiative, it’s important to remember that having an impact on these critical issues requires a broad array of efforts, including private enforcement, public enforcement and public outrage.

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