Sky’s the limit, but the skies aren’t unlimited

America endures because every generation meets the challenges of its time — pushing forward through war, disease, civil strife, economic meltdowns, political ruptures and external threats.

Today, we face climate change. It’s the greatest environmental challenge of our time. It jeopardizes our health, our families and our economy. The scientific evidence of that is mounting.

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Worldwide, the 12 warmest years in recorded history all occurred in the past 15. Last year was the hottest on record in the continental United States. More than 22,000 daily high temperature records were broken in communities across our country. At least 74 Americans died from excessive heat.

The worst drought in half a century turned farm fields into wastelands of shriveled crops and cracked earth; 29 states were declared drought disaster areas in 2012.

Our ice caps are melting, our seas are rising.

Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast last fall with flooding and high winds that left 130 people dead, did $80 billion worth of damage and put 14 feet of water in downtown Manhattan.

That’s never happened before.

Taken together, last year’s floods, wildfires, drought and storms cost our country more than $140 billion. American taxpayers picked up the lion’s share of the tab, at least $96 billion. That comes to $1,100 per taxpayer to clean up climate chaos.

Going forward, storm surges amplified by higher sea levels will pummel coastal communities; droughts will intensify, only to be followed by torrential rains that flood whole towns.

And why? Temperatures are rising, at home and abroad — up 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century and estimated to rise another 2 to 11 degrees in the next 100 years, mainly because of record amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. We hit 400 parts per million this year, the highest concentration in human history.

Our skies don’t have unlimited capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. The problem is, right now, the sky’s the limit on how much the largest source of that pollution can send into the air. That source is electric power plants.

Currently, there are no federal standards curbing carbon pollution from power plants. Federal standards today limit their emissions of arsenic, mercury and soot, but not carbon dioxide. That’s not safe. That’s not right.

Fortunately, it’s about to change. On Sept. 20, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed carbon pollution limits for future power plants. They are the initial step of the president’s common-sense climate action plan, and they are an important step forward. The next step will be even more consequential.

We need to stop the unchecked carbon pollution pouring out of the existing 1,500 power plants across our country.

They release, every year, about 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This accounts for 40 percent of our total carbon footprint, and it is fueling climate chaos and extreme weather.

Last December, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) proposed a detailed plan for how the EPA, working with the states, could cut down on this pollution using the tools it already has under the Clean Air Act, the same law that has been saving lives and protecting our well-being for more than 40 years, the same law that has produced $4 to $8 of benefits for every one dollar invested in cleaning up our air.

The NRDC’s analysis shows that fair and flexible standards could slash power plant carbon pollution by more than 25 percent by the end of this decade, with benefits that exceed the costs by up to 15 to 1.

Now it’s up to the EPA to develop its own proposal. Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that she wants to hear from the states, from industry and from the public. She should consider any good idea, but she must reject assertions that we can’t or needn’t act. 

Meanwhile, Congress remains divided on what to do, if anything. Disappointingly, some have actively sought to block the president’s climate plan, to strip funding from the EPA for climate initiatives, and to deny even the use of science and economics to address climate change and its costs.

Others have welcomed action from the executive branch as the only realistic path forward, given the political logjam.

Doing so will make clear that tomorrow’s electricity won’t come at the expense of our children’s future. It will demonstrate that we can confront our most dire challenges. It will help protect our way of life.

It’s time to act on climate.  

Lashof is director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.