Tag Archives: EPA carbon standards

Climate Peril: Denmark Leads, the US Retreats

Two articles in today’s paper cast in sharp relief the major crisis facing God’s Creation today, as we struggle with the unfolding threat of global climate change. One tiny country – Denmark – has made so much progress in developing sustainable energy that they are facing complexities such as excessively cheap electricity. In the other, a newly-elected American congressional majority is swearing to kill the only significant national climate initiatives underway in the country.

Denmark emits 9.8 tons of CO2 per person every year. But the average American more than doubles that level, with a whopping 19.7 tons of CO2 emissions per year. The overall difference, however, is enormous: there are only 5.6 million Danes, compared to some 310 million Americans. Whatever leadership the Danes exhibit, it is overwhelmed by American negligence and gluttony.

Wind provides 28% of Denmark’s electricity (Danish Wind Industry Association)

So what’s going on in Denmark? Well, they have already achieved 40 percent renewable power on their electric grid, and plan to be at 50 percent in six years. More amazingly, they plan to use no fossil fuels whatsoever by 2050: none for the electric grid, none for transportation, none for heating and cooling. None.

And the US? Our wind, solar and geothermal power accounts for a modest 6 percent of our consumption (with another 7 percent coming from legacy hydroelectric dams). It seems that our policy is now driven by worries about the plight of the tiny handful of coal miners living in the state represented by the new Senate Majority Leader. Even if it kills the planet’s natural systems, those Kentuckian miners, and – much more importantly – their bosses and lobbyists, are not going to lose a single job. No mention of the fact that there are four times as many American solar, wind and geothermal workers today as there are coal miners.

In Denmark, they’re developing smart appliances that talk to the power grid and cut back when electricity is expensive, but run full blast when there is abundant wind or sunshine; and they’re adjusting electricity prices by the hour to provide incentives to consume power when sustainable sources are most available.

In the US, all the talk is about ramming through approval of the massive Keystone XL pipeline which will carry carbon–heavy Canadian tar sands oil to export refineries in Texas. Canadian oil companies will profit; unspeakably wealthy multinational oil exporters will profit; but American Midwesterners will watch nervously as nearly a million barrels of highly pressurized, corrosive tar sands oil course through their precious aquifers every day – all while the cynical claims of pipeline jobs are repeated by politicians, despite having been debunked repeatedly.

In Denmark, they have a Climate czar, who coordinates their response to the defining global crisis of our century. In the US, we have an Ebola czar, after one person died of the disease.

In Denmark, they worry about electricity becoming so cheap that gas-fired plants will go out of business, even if they might be needed for standby power on windless nights.

In the US, Congress is vowing to prevent the EPA from enforcing the Clean Air Act carbon standards on coal-fired power plants. If they prevail, then the American skies will continue to be used as an unlimited, free dumping ground for coal and gas soot and smog, as though the air belongs to the drillers and refiners, and not to every human and other creature on God’s earth.

Creation-care advocates in the Christian church surely wonder what judgment awaits these two countries, as global climate systems spiral out of control, as oceans become dangerously acidic, as growing seasons in poor countries suffer waves of drought and flooding, and as extinctions of threatened species run at thousands of times historical levels.

Two-thirds of Americans stayed home on Election Day last week. And perhaps many of those non-voters might have agreed that Denmark’s play-book looks smarter – and possibly more Christian – than ours. But that’s a largely academic question, now, isn’t it?

“O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for you judge the peoples with equity, and govern the nations upon earth.” (Psalm 67:4)

The Prophet Nathan and the EPA Carbon Limits

“The Lord sent Nathan to David.”

That’s how the story begins – the familiar Bible account of royal corruption, conspiracy, sexual abuse and murder. The prophet began by telling the king a simple story of two neighbors: one rich, and one poor; one with vast herds of sheep and cattle, and one with nothing but a beloved pet lamb who slept in his arms.

We remember the storyline, don’t we? The rich man entertained a visitor, but was unwilling to use any of his abundant livestock to feed his houseguest. Instead, he seized his poor neighbor’s pet to be slaughtered for dinner. King David seethed with anger over such pitiless injustice, and pronounced the death penalty without even asking the rich villain’s identity.

Nathan didn’t waste a moment: “You are the man!” he declared (2 Samuel 12).

That was then. Three thousand years later, the poor still suffer abuse at the hands of the powerful, just like in King David’s time. The themes of speaking prophetic truth to power are also timeless. But neighbors with cattle, sheep and pet lambs are not, are they? So how does Nathan’s story translate into the struggles for justice in the 21st Century?

At its core, Nathan’s story is about a transaction – enjoyed by one party, but paid for by another. There is a rich man, and he has a houseguest. Maybe they’re both rich; maybe they’re relatives; maybe they’re together for a business deal – the prophet doesn’t say. But cultural norms require hospitality, and part of the deal is a good dinner. Whatever their business, they need meat for the traveler and his host. They could bear those costs themselves; in fact, any thinking person would demand it. But instead, they impose the costs on a neighbor. What’s worse, they dump them on someone who is already dirt-poor. If you’re at all like King David, you’re hot under the collar just thinking about it.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

Lisa Sharon Harper, of New York Faith & Justice, praying with religious leaders at the EPA hearings.

And this brings us to a debate that’s been raging in major American cities this week. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards under the Clean Air Act, to cut carbon pollution from electric power plants. It’s sparked an intense debate, with pastors and conservationists among the supporters, and coal and utility executives arguing against it. Twelve coal-mining states even filed suit  yesterday to block the EPA from issuing its carbon standards.

Whatever you’ve heard about the debate, a bit of background on the Clean Air Act would be helpful. With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress passed the Clean Air Act under President Richard Nixon in 1970, and expanded it under George H.W. Bush in 1990. The Act required the EPA to establish air quality standards to protect public health and welfare, and to regulate emissions of hazardous substances. Over the years, the EPA has responded by setting standards for harmful pollution contaminating the country’s atmosphere. Forty years later, few of us can remember the days when cities like Pittsburgh were shrouded in a permanent toxic fog, when rivers like the Cuyahoga in Cleveland actually caught fire, or when less than half of Americans were served by wastewater treatment facilities.

In recent years, the EPA’s duty to also regulate climate-warming gases under the Clean Air Act has been confirmed by landmark legal cases beginning in 2007 and culminating with a Supreme Court ruling in 2014. And in response, the agency has proposed regulations designed to cut carbon emissions from electric power plants – the largest single source of greenhouse gases – to levels 30% below current levels by the year 2030.

Rivers aren't supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

Rivers aren’t supposed to burn: the Cuyahoga in 1969

This week marks the end of a lengthy period of public comment on the EPA’s proposals. In Washington, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Denver, hundreds of stakeholders came out to speak their minds on the proposals, including coal industry lobbyists, politicians and conservationists. In Washington on Wednesday, about two dozen religious leaders took to the podium to add their voices in support of the EPA’s proposed plan.

“We are responding to the reality of climate change,” said Sojourners’ Liz Schmitt, “not just because of what the science says, not just because we know ethically we need to, but first and foremost because the Word tells us to.”

Schmitt was joined by Evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jewish leaders, among others, in invoking biblical faith as the basis for fighting climate pollution. “The creation speaks to us of God’s steadfast love for us,’ said Schmitt. “And the Bible speaks to us of our first responsibility, the task God gives to humanity in Genesis – to steward the creation.”

Two days later, evangelical environmental leader Rev. Mitch Hescox told the EPA delegates in Pittsburgh: “For years, we have subsidized the cost of coal-generated electricity in the brains, lungs, and bodies of our children, and privatized the profits. Asthma, cancers, autism, birth defects, and brain damage have a direct link to the use of fossil fuels and petrochemicals.”

For Rev. Hescox, the coal companies make the profits, and the children bear the costs of diseases and climate disruption.

And that brings us back to the prophet Nathan, and his story about little a lamb and a rich man. Who should bear the cost of dinner? Not the poor neighbor, of course! In our day, who should bear the costs of electric power production? When those plants burn coal, oil and gas, who should bear the costs – the external costs – of the pollutants that find their way into the air, water and land? Not the poor, of course! Right?

But that’s the way external costs almost always work. Buyers and sellers get all the advantages of the fossil fuel production. But people downwind pay the price in asthma and elevated mercury levels, and in droughts, floods and crop failures that have become the routine calling card of climate disruption. And study after study  shows that the poor are much more likely than the rich to be found among the victims.

Although they would never come out and say it that way, that’s just the way the coal companies and their backers want it to remain. Every state attorney general filing suit against the EPA, and every coal executive has the same message: “We can’t afford it.”

However, they seldom complete the argument with much candor. “We can’t afford it – unless people like you continue to subsidize our profits by paying for the external costs of our pollutants” – that’s the actual heart of the argument. It’s a startling admission that the fossil-fuel business model is essentially bankrupt, unless our neighbors bear the external costs for us.

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of the external costs of coal burning. But in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences quantified these costs in their study titled The Hidden Cost of Energy. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in unpriced external costs – the costs of respiratory diseases, ecosystem damages, and climate impacts like drought, flooding and rising food costs.  That’s a tax of about $40 levied on every single human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year. Borne by men and women, by adults and children. Borne by the rich. And borne by the roughly one billion humans earning less than $1 per day.

So maybe it’s time to “remix” the story of the prophet Nathan for our day. If we’re among those who benefit from “the right” to freely pollute the world’s air, forcing the world’s billions to subsidize our use of cheap energy, maybe Nathan is speaking to us: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house….”

Yes, perhaps the sword. Or perhaps the chaos from disrupted climate systems, rising sea levels, drought and wildfires, flooding and hunger. This planet is the only one God has provided for its seven billion human souls. Can we continue to abuse it without incurring the judgment of its Creator?

EPA Carbon Rules in Supreme Court’s Hands: Pray for Justice & Sense

“Confronting climate change should be an issue that unites rather than divides us. And that includes the Supreme Court. Here’s hoping the justices make the right call.” Christine Todd Whitman, former GOP Governor of New Jersey

As we all know, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to regulate the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that new electric power plants can emit. Not surprisingly, the coal and oil industries have pulled out all stops to make sure they don’t succeed. They’ve lobbied hard against the effort, but their efforts have been overwhelmed by a flood of normal citizens demanding climate action.

So they’ve looked to the courts to protect the status quo of cost-free polluting. So far, they haven’t had much success. They’ve sued – and lost – right up the judicial chain. Last stop was the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel of judges appointed by presidents of both parties found that the EPA’s plan to limit power-plant greenhouse gas emissions was “unambiguously correct” and “statutorily compelled.”

So now it’s inthe hands of the Supreme Court. You’d think that this would be a simple matter for them. But it’s not. That’s because the industry plaintiffs have focused on an arcane, technical argument that makes this a risky matter in the hands of Justice Roberts’ court. Granted, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate pollutants. And the Supreme Court has ruled that greenhouse gases like CO2 emissions are clearly pollutants. No one questions that.

But here’s the catch: Back when the Clean Air Act was written, Congress had to establish a threshold for action: Who’s big and bad enough to focus on, and who is so small that regulation would be impossible or intrusive? How to distinguish between major and minor emitters?

Back then, before we – as a country and world – understood the peril of carbon pollution, we thought of pollutants as things like mercury, sulfur and industrial chemicals like HFCs – all emitted in comparatively small amounts. So the threshold for being a major emitter was set at the low level of 100 to 250 tons of pollutants per year. That worked. We got the big guys, and the little ones came along on their own.

Electric plants like this Ohio coal-fired plant emit 38% of U.S. CO2

Electric plants like this Ohio coal-fired plant emit 38% of U.S. CO2.

But then came climate chaos and global-warming emissions. Carbon emissions became the world’s biggest environmental threat. But carbon is different. With the average American individual responsible for 17 tons of CO2 per year, any corner grocery store or elementary school would be a “major emitter” when it comes to climate-changing pollutants under the law as written. So the EPA did the sensible thing, focusing only on those emitting 100,000 tons or more of CO2.

“Foul play!” cried the industry. If you want to regulate us, then you have to show up at every 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts! It’s there in the law: 100 to 250 tons per year! Who are you to rewrite the rules to focus only on us?

It’s a time-tested strategy for polluters: Set the bar for regulation so low that no agency could ever hope to get started with any regulation whatsoever.

And to hear reports from yesterday’s Supreme Court arguments, it sounds like they’ve got some converts on the bench. The issue isn’t whether climate change is real and caused by manmade carbon emissions. It isn’t whether it’s harmful to human health. It isn’t whether the EPA is required to act. The Court crossed those bridges back in 2007. It’s whether the EPA has the discretion to develop action plans and regulatory thresholds based on unfolding science since the law was passed.

I suspect that the justices would do well to look to America’s faith communities for some guidance here. Christians, Jews and others have long wrestled with today’s application of scriptures written in antiquity. And we’re seldom troubled by rigid literalism.

Consider the prophet Isaiah, revered by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’is. Almost three thousand years ago, he foresaw the reign of peace ushered in by God’s kingdom on earth:  “[God] shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people,” he wrote; “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation….”

Sword into plowshares. We’ve all heard those verses, haven’t we? But let’s think for a minute: When was the last time we held a sword, let alone used one in anger? And what’s a plowshare, anyway? Is this even relevant today?

Of course, we People of the Book have long since gotten over this sort of problem. We’re prepared to think of God’s kingdom laying down its assault rifles and nuclear arms, in favor of farm equipment and medical supplies. The language of God-breathed scripture is always spoken within a cultural context, but its truth endures to all generations. We don’t rest our oxen on the Sabbath, but we rest our modern means of production. We honor the God who causes the Earth to rotate faithfully every 24 hours, even if our scriptures tell us that the setting sun “hurries back to where it rises.” We take up our crosses, even if crucifixion has mercifully been banned for many centuries.

Perhaps the Supreme Court has a little something to learn from us in this. The Clean Air Act was enacted in a historical context. It demanded that the EPA act limit harmful pollutants. And it permitted it to focus on major emitters, rather than every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican governor who ran the Bush Administration’s EPA gets it just about right in an editorial today:

“Climate change is the defining environmental challenge of our time, and there are huge consequences for inaction — whether measured in human lives or economic disruption…. Today, gridlock and partisanship make common-sense action all but impossible…. Far from ‘rewriting’ the statute or bending the law to fit its climate change agenda, the Obama administration simply interpreted the law in the same way as its predecessors — this time to cover greenhouse gas emissions.”

We pray that God gives the Supreme Court the wisdom to understand what’s at stake, and to rule with common sense and justice.

The Golden Rule and Limits on Carbon Pollution

Here at Beloved Planet, we present an evangelical Christian perspective on care for the creation. But Christians probably recognize that we’re not alone in hearing the call to creation stewardship. When I testified at the EPA two weeks ago in support of greenhouse gas pollution standards for new power plants, there were plenty of Christians; but there were also people of virtually every faith community — including the Bahá’í faith.

My friend Peter Adriance was there representing his community and his faith. And while we feature his Bahá’í testimony on this Christian site, his statement features Christian glaciologist Richard Alley, who argues for climate justice from the teaching of Jesus Christ: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” Matthew 7:12.

Here is Peter’s compelling testimony:

Peter Adriance, Bahá’ís of the United States

Good morning. I’m Peter Adriance, Representative for Sustainable Development for the Bahá’ís of the United States. I’m pleased to be among the several representatives of faith communities here speaking in support of EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants.

Peter Adriance testifying at the EPA

Peter Adriance testifying at the EPA

I appreciate EPA’s efforts to clean up our environment through these standards, which will reduce dangerous emissions. They will protect the health and well-being of all citizens and the web of life upon which we all depend.

Currently, power plants are responsible for about 40% of US national carbon emissions. The impacts of these emissions are increasingly being felt in communities here at home and around the globe. From extreme weather events to droughts, floods, wildfires, the spread of vector-borne diseases, increased levels of asthma and more, there is growing evidence that carbon emissions are causing chaos and loss of property and life, often in communities ill prepared to deal with the impacts.

Knowing the importance of reducing carbon emissions, then, why would we allow new power plants to be built without any restrictions on the carbon they emit? These standards can help to discourage the investment in infrastructure that will lock us into dangerous levels of emissions for decades to come. The new standards will serve as an incentive to develop clean energy sources, including renewables.

More than purely an environmental issue, the setting of carbon standards is an issue of fairness, equity and justice, as many speaking here today will testify. President Obama has stressed this same point himself. In his words: “We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” We in the faith community would, of course, agree. But it is not only future generations that will bear the impacts of climate change. They are being felt now, most intensely by those populations around the world who are least able to cope with them. We must act with great conviction and haste to move toward solutions.

The central principle of the Bahá’í Faith is the oneness of humankind. This principle has deep implications for policy in many arenas. It should guide us to seek solutions that are equitable and just, treating all people as members of one human family. EPA’s proposed carbon standards for new power plants represent one way that this principle can be put into action

I was fortunate last week to attend the 14th National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment. The focus there was on “building climate solutions”. The good news is that solutions are within our reach, and many are being implemented. Several presenters acknowledged the social costs and ethical dimensions of the climate challenge. Renowned climate scientist, Dr. Richard Alley, was emphatic about this. He referred to “the Golden Rule issue” – We must do unto others as we would have them do unto us — but right now our emissions and their impact on others is taking us in the wrong direction. He said, if we take the right steps in limiting our emissions, we’ll bring about a stronger economy, more jobs, enhanced national security, and a cleaner environment. We will also be more consistent with the Golden Rule. If we continue with business as usual, the opposite will result. EPA’s proposed carbon standards for new power plants are an important addition to the mix of solutions we so desperately need.

People of faith across the country are putting their heads and hearts together to address the climate issue. Later this month, people of all faiths, including Baha’is, will take part in the national Preach-in on Climate Change organized by Interfaith Power and Light. In churches, mosques synagogues and Bahá’í Centers around the country, they will be discussing climate change from a faith perspective, taking action to reduce their own emissions, and sending messages to members of Congress asking them to do their part in moving us toward a low-carbon energy future. In order to make real progress, national policies need to be set to address major sources of emissions. Adopting EPA’s proposed carbon standards for new power plants is an important move in that direction.

My hope is that our generation will be able to leave the world directed towards a better future than the one towards which we are currently headed, a world in which all people will be able to lead safe, productive and healthy lives. I thank EPA for its efforts to point us in that direction.

Faith Communities Overwhelm EPA Carbon Hearings

Yesterday, the EPA held its final day of hearings in Washington on its proposed new rules restricting the amount of CO2 that may be emitted by new power plants — per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Of course, the “clean coal” people were there, as were executives of various utilities, arguing against the standards. On the other side there were the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other enviros.

But dwarfing them both, by my count, were faith leaders. Evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics, Unitarians, interfaith groups and many others showed up to support the EPA’s standards, and to advocate care for God’s creation. They spoke of the injustice of climate pollution, of the impact on marginalized and poor communities, of the mandate to protect all of God’s creation for His own sake, for other species, for the poor, and for our children. Repeatedly, we heard the themes: The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness; the sea is his, he made it; God placed the Man in the garden to serve and keep it; the whole creation groans; love your neighbor as yourself….

Rep. Henry Waxman addressed crowd outside the EPA hearings

Rep. Henry Waxman addressed crowd outside the EPA hearings

In the next few days, I’ll post the comments of a number of leaders from various faith communities. Today, I’ll start with mine.

Testimony of John Elwood

My name is John Elwood. I am speaking to you today as an elder and Sunday school teacher in the Presbyterian Church; as editor of the website BelovedPlanet.com; and as a participant in the Environmental Stewardship initiative of the Christian Reformed Church. My farm, in Andover, New Jersey, provides produce for more than 700 families.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify in support of the EPA’s standards on carbon emissions from new power plants.

An important question for Christians, and for all people of goodwill, is this: How much carbon pollution should power plants be permitted to dump into the atmosphere – for others to pay for in health, and in climate disruption costs?

From the Evangelical and Reformed Christian perspective, it’s clearly wrong for a buyer and a seller to enjoy all the benefits of a transaction, and then leave a substantial part of the cost for someone else to pick up – the external costs.

The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments don’t speak of “external costs” by that name. But God pronounces judgment on dishonest scales, skimping on the measure, and mixing in the sweepings with the wheat. “The Lord has sworn by himself,” says the prophet Amos: “‘I will never forget anything they have done…. I will spare them no longer.’”

Until recently, we didn’t really know the scale of the external costs of coal burning. But as you know, in 2010, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences quantified these costs in their study titled The Hidden Cost of Energy. Its findings were shocking. Coal burned in a single year by U.S. power plants costs everyone else on the planet another $200 to 300 billion in unpriced external costs.  That’s a tax of about $40 levied on every single human on Earth. Only for U.S. coal. Only for one single year. Borne by men and women, by adults and children, by both the rich and by those earning less than $1 per day.

During these hearings, you’ve heard testimony from people engaged in the coal industry, and you’ve been asked to consider the toll they will bear if new power plants are made to limit their carbon pollution. Christians of all traditions take their plight seriously, and our society must find ways to help affected communities recover. But I would like to ask you to consider the plight of totally innocent communities – both in our country and around the world – which have never had an ounce of benefit from the burning of coal.

Last year, the Christian Reformed Church sent me, and a delegation of other leaders, to Kenya to hear firsthand from people who have borne the brunt of the external costs of carbon pollution. We met with hundreds of small farmers and community leaders. Everywhere, the story was the same. Two reliable growing seasons in years past have shrunk to a single season. And even that single season is now unreliable. Crop yields have plummeted. Water is more scarce than ever.

We also visited with Reverend Peter Karanja, the General Secretary of the Kenyan Council of Churches. Please, listen to what this good man told us:

“We are very concerned,” he said, “especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.

“Long after your life is over,” he told us, “your actions will have consequences on us. Many of them will be harmful consequences.”

On behalf of all people who bear the cost of carbon pollution from American power plants – our citizens, our children, the people of Kenya plus many more – I urge the EPA to finally implement standards aimed at reducing carbon emissions by new power plants.

Thank you, and may God bless you for your efforts.