Fighting climate change is good policy and good politics

When President Obama announces the country’s first-ever standards to curb carbon pollution from our power plants next Monday, June 2, he will be betting on the adage that good policy makes for good politics.

That looks to be a pretty good wager -- because running for office on a platform of protecting the environment, promoting clean sources of energy, and curbing climate change is a proven winner, far from the political liability that the polluting industry would have politicians believe.

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In 2012, the Koch brothers and their fellow polluters targeted candidates who championed the environment with more than $270 million in TV ads in just the final two months of the election cycle, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. But the environmental champions prevailed.

In Ohio, oil, gas and coal companies spent $20 million against Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, but he won by six percentage points while unabashedly supporting renewable power and environmental protections. Jon Tester in Montana, Tim Kaine in Virginia and Martin Heinrich in New Mexico also won big-money Senate races despite concerted assaults by pro-pollution interests.

We were not surprised. That’s because survey after survey show that a large majority of Americans understand that climate change is real. A December 2013 Stanford University/USA Today/Resources for the Future poll found that 81 percent of voters said unchecked climate change would be a serious problem for the country. And by a 2-1 margin, the public supports government steps to limit the carbon pollution from power plants -- even if it raises electricity prices--according to an April survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Given these numbers, “efforts to limit carbon emissions by the president are likely to increase his approval ratings and win votes for Democrats in November,” says Jon Krosnick, a survey researcher and director of the Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford. “Eighteen percent of Americans, a very substantial bloc, base their voting on this issue, and almost all of them are disappointed that Congress has blocked action so far.” That’s why the president will use the law already on the books, the Clean Air Act, which gives him the authority to limit harmful emissions.

The president’s plan will begin to rein in the now-unregulated carbon pollution spewing from fossil-fueled power plants, which account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions. It’s a pivotal move that will put climate center stage again for the first time since 2010, when Congress failed in an attempt to pass a law to combat climate change.

This time, turbo-charging the debate are the alarming new studies issued in recent weeks by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the United Nations and the National Climate Assessment that graphically describe the crisis – and the consequences of inaction.

The president’s power plant standards will set the country on a new course -- toward a cleaner energy future and greater energy efficiency while mitigating the worst effects of a rapidly-heating planet, rising ocean levels, killer storms and devastating droughts. His plan also is expected to allow for a flexible, state-by-state approach while making sure that utilities and power grid operators have ample tools to assure reliable power as cleaner plants replace dirty old ones, and as energy-saving technologies help consumers cut both their power consumption and their monthly bills, according to the Analysis Group, an economic and financial consulting firm. What the standards won’t do is turn off our lights.

At the same time, it is difficult to overstate the health benefits from cleaning up the dirtiest plants: hundreds of thousands of lives saved and illnesses avoided each year – to the tune of billions of dollars in benefits, far outweighing power company compliance costs.

Yet until now, carbon pollution has slipped through a legal loophole and continues to pour forth without restriction. We must limit this pollution, just as we do now for mercury, lead, arsenic and soot.

The carbon pollution standards will be good for our health, good for the economy and good for jobs; and supporting them will be good for politicians who do the right thing. The standards make so much sense, in fact, that 57 percent of Americans believe that they already are in place, according to a 2013 poll by the Benenson Strategy Group.

Our children and future generations will thank us for stepping up to close the carbon pollution loophole before it’s too late.

Beinecke is president of the NRDC Action Fund, an affiliated but separate organization from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental organization. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, the NRDC Action Fund engages in various advocacy and political activities for the NRDC, a 501(c)(3) organization.