White House climate change report: Act now, or pay later

A new White House climate change report warns of the economic costs of delaying action on global warming. It comes as the EPA begins public hearings on controversial power plant regulations aimed at curbing climate change. 

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Sunlight reflects off of a chunk of coal at Dominion Terminal Associates' coal terminal in Newport News, Va. A White House climate change report released Tuesday says EPA power plant rules will save Americans money over the long term.

The longer the world waits to act on climate change, the more costly it will be to rein in the environmental impacts of releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

That's the conclusion of a White House report on climate change released Tuesday. It comes on the same day the EPA begins public hearings on controversial power plant regulations that critics say will raise energy costs and do little to curb global warming. 

The timing of the Obama administration's report is not a coincidence. Although polls show a majority of Americans support the new power plant regulations, EPA officials are expected to get an earful of criticism as they present them in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington this week. The White House report anticipates the backlash and aims to garner public support for President Obama's Climate Action Plan – a portfolio of cabinet-level energy and climate policies that have been a cornerstone of his second term.

Tuesday's report makes an economic case for taking out an upfront "climate insurance" policy now, rather than waiting for later when further environmental degradation might require more stringent and costly actions.

"We know way more than enough to justify acting today [on climate change]," Jason Furman, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters on a press call Monday. 

The cost of fighting climate change will increase 40 percent with each decade of deferred action, according to the report. That's largely because the carbon emissions from power plants, vehicles, and other sources linger in the atmosphere. They accumulate over time, increasing in concentration, and trapping more heat that would otherwise leave the planet. That, the report says, will "accelerate multiple threats, including more severe storms, droughts, and heat waves, further sea level rise, more frequent and severe storm surge damage, and acidification of the oceans." Extreme weather events like summer wildfires in the West are already putting economic burdens on governments, businesses, and individuals across the country.

The report points to the new EPA power plant regulations unveiled last month as an example of a kind of action that will save Americans money over the long term. The rules limit carbon emissions from the nation's existing power plant fleet, which makes up roughly one third of the nation's total output of greenhouse gases. The EPA estimates the rules will have public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion per year by 2030, outweighing projected costs of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion.  

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"Limiting global warming pollution from dirty power plants and transitioning to clean, renewable energy are exactly the actions we’ve been waiting for," Julian Boggs, global warming director for Boston-based environmental advocacy group Environment America said in a statement Tuesday. "By saving energy with better efficiency, harnessing the power of the wind and the sun, and limiting pollution from dirty power plants, we can prevent the worst consequences of global warming, and secure a safer future for our children.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Republican lawmakers, energy-state Democrats, industry advocates, and business groups are calling on the EPA to withdraw its proposal at the hearings this week. The rules will cost US consumers in the form of higher electricity bills and fewer jobs, critics say, all while cutting global emissions by a mere fraction of a percent. They also accuse the EPA's public hearings of avoiding regions likely to bear the financial brunt of power plant limits.

“Local communities that benefit from low-cost coal-based electricity and coal-related industries have been silenced in this debate, and hard-working Americans not only in places like West Virginia and Kentucky, but across the entire US, have been denied the opportunity to shape policies that put their local economies in jeopardy, while environmental special interest groups get preferred status,” Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for communications at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement Tuesday.

Even as the US cracks down on domestic use of coal, it is exporting more of it the carbon-heavy fuel abroad, often to countries with less stringent environmental regulations. Since Mr. Obama took office, US coal consumption has declined by 195 million tons, according to an Associated Press analysis of Energy Department data, but about 20 percent of that coal was shipped abroad. That share is expected to increase as US coal regulations get tighter, while emerging economies' demand for the cheap fuel rises. 

Jared Gilmour contributed reporting from Washington.

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