Steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. A global health commission said in a report published June 22 that substituting cleaner energy for coal will give Earth a better chance at avoiding dangerous climate change.
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Advocates and critics of a proposal to fight climate change are gearing up for a battle as the Obama Administration nears completion of its Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other types of harmful emissions from the atmosphere by 2030.
Advocates claim the proposal will add no more than 5 cents a week to average household electric bills, while critics assert it will put thousands of people out of work and force utilities to prematurely shut down more coal-fired power plants.
Closing coal-fired plants is under way as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has led to massive growth in electricity produced by natural gas and as several states have mandated more renewable power.
Days from being finalized, the Clean Power Plan has major implications for Ohio, one of the nation’s most coal-reliant states and traditionally a swing state in presidential elections.
It calls for tougher rules on coal-fired power plants, which Gov. John Kasich, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has worked with utilities to fight.
The Clean Power Plan also is the cornerstone of the environmental legacy President Obama hopes to leave behind.
His administration rolled out this plan, acknowledging it would be fought vigorously in court and test the U.S. EPA’s strength on Capitol Hill for decades to come.
Setback on mercury
Late last month the Supreme Court rejected the Obama Administration’s attempt to impose stronger rules on mercury, another major pollutant caused by burning coal. Mercury is a neurotoxin shown to affect brain development of young children.
When mercury migrates into the Great Lakes and other bodies of water, it contaminates fish that people eat. Mercury has been one of the leading causes for fish-consumption advisories.
Despite that setback, the Obama Administration is moving ahead with its attempt to impose tougher rules on carbon dioxide.
On June 23 the White House held a summit on the health effects of climate change. The event piggybacked a global call for action by Pope Francis, who described climate change as a moral and scientific issue. High-profile figures, including U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy and U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarty, echoed that at the White House summit.
Doing nothing will cost the American public $3.8 trillion a year by the end of the century, or 3.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in today’s dollars, according to a 2008 study done by researchers at Tufts University for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Half of that — $1.9 trillion a year more a year — will just come from hurricane damage, real estate losses, and increased costs for water and energy.
Health, water benefits
Scientists long have predicted a warmer planet will bring more asthma, smog, chronic respiratory diseases, and heat-related deaths. More ticks and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, Lyme disease and other diseases are likely, they have said. So are longer allergy seasons.
Ohio ranks second and Michigan ranks fifth in states that could reap ancillary health benefits from the Clean Power Plan, according to a peer-reviewed report that came out in May.
That study, done for the U.S. EPA and published in the journal Nature Climate Change, claims Ohio could avoid 2,800 premature deaths between 2020 and 2030 along with 760 hospitalizations and 180 heart attacks. Michigan could avoid 1,900 premature deaths during that same decade, along with 450 hospitalizations and 130 heart attacks. Five of the 10 states most likely to benefit are in the Great Lakes region.
Shelly Kiser, American Lung Association advocacy director for Ohio and Michigan, calls last summer’s Toledo water crisis “the new normal” because of climate change.
She noted how scientists believe it has exacerbated — but not caused — growth of toxic western Lake Erie algae.
Worldwide algae issue
Lake Erie is not alone. Its most dominant algae, microcystis, is now found all over the world and likely on the rise because of climate change, according to scientists who spoke this year at an international forum hosted by Bowling Green State University.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D., Texas) is a registered nurse who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Climate change “puts the health of millions at risk,” she said, but especially children and senior citizens in low-income communities who live near major pollution sources.
“This is an environmental justice issue,” she said. “African-Americans and Latinos are most likely to live near pollution sources and most likely to have health problems.”
She urged people to stand behind the U.S. EPA because it is getting “bashed” by members of Congress.
“Health has been long overdue in the climate discussion,” agreed Dr. Sumita Khatri, co-director of the Cleveland Clinic’s asthma center.
United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez blames 26 recent deaths of California farm workers on extreme heat, prolonged drought, and lack of drinking water there. One woman was left to die in a field while others were ordered to keep working. An autopsy showed she died of heat stroke and that her body temperature had reached 108 degrees, he said.
“Watering crops cannot be more important than providing water to farm workers to drink,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Feeding America and the rest of the world is honorable and important work. Farm workers should not risk death.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s chief scientist, Richard Spinrad, said 2014 was the warmest year on record and 2015 is on pace to break that.
He said he issue of climate change and public health is “intricately and intimately connected.”
But criticism of Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan goes beyond those who deny humans are contributing to climate change.
Charles Steele, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, told The Blade in May he thinks the plan is too ambitious.
“Cosmetically, it sounds fine. It sounds good and everyone wants a clean environment,” Mr. Steele said. “But we can’t do it overnight and not expect poor people to be impacted.”
The Kasich administration is opposed to the plan.
In a 170-page objection, the Ohio EPA claimed the U.S. EPA had “wildly extrapolated” data on health claims, that it had made “wildly speculative assertions of wide-ranging conclusions,” and had “overstepped logical regulatory authority.”
“Our own toxicological research was not able to establish any direct health effects from the regulation of [greenhouse gases],” the Ohio EPA wrote.
In April, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), fighting for re-election against Democrat and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, became the target of a six-figure attack campaign on TV and social media over his position on the Clean Power Plan.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said it launched the campaign to call out Mr. Portman over a budget resolution that would give states such as Ohio the ability to opt out of the carbon rule.
Mr. Portman told The Blade then he acknowledges the reality of climate change and believes humans contribute to it.
But he said states should not have to impose the rule if they can prove it “will disproportionately harm low/fixed-income vulnerable households, cost jobs, harm the economy, or risk electric reliability.”
Ms. McCarthy said she’s determined not to let politicians, climate deniers, utility lobbyists, and other opponents she collectively refers to as “them” decide the Clean Power Plan’s fate.
“In any democracy, it’s not ‘them’ that carries the day. It’s normal human beings who put their heads together and believe the science,” Ms. McCarthy said. “We will, if you let us.”