Leadership Opportunity Dodged With Climate Change Editorial

June 9th, 2014 · 2 Comments · economy, energy policy, environment, journalism, regulation

By Denise Tessier
For decades, climate scientists have been warning of the catastrophic effects of earth-warming pollution on the planet, effects that have accelerated in recent years. That history was laid out quite clearly for a mass audience with the June 2 episode of the Fox network program “Cosmos” (which played again June 3 on the National Geographic channel).

A few days later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a plan intended to rein in some of that potentially devastating pollution. Some say the modest proposal to cut carbon pollution from American power plants (to 30 percent of 2005 levels over the next 16 years) could be too little, too late in terms of the quality of the environment being left to the next generation.

But in the face of the urgent need for some action the Albuquerque Journal editorial board moved with all the haste of a lumbering dinosaur, repeating in its opinion piece some of the same tropes that have been trotted out more than 40 years. In “Don’t expect emission changes to be painless” (June 7), the paper merely pronounced that the EPA proposal is “worth a serious public policy debate.”

In doing so, the Journal cited “conflicting” data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the EPA, complaining that such “diverging claims don’t advance the debate over what measures are both necessary and prudent for the United States to take.” It then claimed: “What is needed is honest, science-backed data.”

What this paragraph reveals, sadly, is a failure to acknowledge that there is science-backed data, and data should trump ideology and rhetoric when talking about the environment, human health and the future of the planet. In essence, the Journal refused to take a stand and repeated the trope that regulation is too costly, the Obama administration appears to be going too far, costs will hurt the public and more talk is needed before action is taken. In short, the Journal eschewed any leadership role.

In failing to take a stand the Journal missed an opportunity to “advance the debate over what measures are both necessary and prudent. . .”

Furthermore, when the editorial asserted that “in the long run (the EPA proposal) may do little to reduce CO2 emissions enough to stop or significantly slow climate change,” it technically was correct, but basically suggested that perhaps nothing should be done, even though the EPA proposal holds great promise in terms of improving human health. The Journal would have been better off, in terms of credibility, if it had remained silent.

(Before the editorial, the Journal actually was ahead of the game compared to some other newspapers when one considers that the New Mexico daily ran an Associated Press advance, “White House to reveal emissions reduction proposal,” on Page 1 the day of the announcement (June 2) and then localized it with a piece by reporter Kevin Robinson-Avila, “Impact of CO2 regulations on PNM unclear” on the Business cover (B1) on June 3. Some papers ran the EPA story strictly as a business, rather than news story, implying in itself that the financial aspects of the rules carry more weight than the health benefits.)

With regard to the “diverging claims” cited, the Journal editorial said:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the rule will cost businesses more than $50 billion a year; the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates it will save money overall; and the EPA’s analysis asserts that the benefits of avoided public health or climate change costs would outweigh the increased cost of energy for consumers.

The editorial cites the Chamber of Commerce position – pollution control will cost money, but it is the Chamber’s function to point out costs. No one has said pollution reduction is cost-free. What’s interesting in this instance is that the Chamber analysis/report cited by the Journal was issued before the EPA proposal had been released. Reportedly, the CofC based its analysis on a Natural Resources Defense Council report, which envisioned what the EPA could do, not necessarily what it would do. Got that? The CofC report was based on an NRDC proposal, both of which were created before the EPA announcement.

But even if the CofC’s pre-packaged cost analysis proved correct, are its results onerous enough to trump the costs in human health in the absence of such controls? Climate Progress provided this context:

First off, as Paul Krugman noted, a $50.2 billion reduction per year is . . . 0.2 percent of the economy. And that loss of 224,000 jobs is out of a country of 140 million workers — America is adding more than 224,000 new jobs every two or three months right now.

Beyond that, there’s a history here. EPA has been issuing regulations on everything from coal furnaces to urban air quality for four decades. Studies sponsored by the fossil fuel industry have regularly predicted major economic hits as a result, and those hits regularly fail to materialize. In fact, when EPA moved to cut sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in 1990, the Edison Electric Institute predicted electricity rate hikes for the 10 most coal-dependent states. The Center for American Progress found that by 2009 their projection had overshot by 24 percent, and for several of those states the 2009 costs were lower than in 1990.

The way markets usually work is that the profit motive drives industries to find the best savings they can in their business models. But there’s no profit in cutting pollution, so there’s no incentive there to try. As a result, when regulations take effect to force them to cut pollution, industry tends to drastically underestimate the reductions they can get in a cost-effective manner.

And here’s another reason the Journal should not have allowed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to hold such sway: When asked, CofC member business organizations revealed that not all wished to be associated with the CofC climate change report.

Think Progress posted a piece saying it contacted “several dozen of the major corporations that have either contributed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or had executives currently serving on its board of directors” and none endorsed the new report.

From the ThinkProgress dispatch:

A spokeswoman for Intel directly distanced itself from the Chamber’s position. “We support the President’s Climate Action Plan,” she told ThinkProgress in an email, adding, “We can support this new rule if it is designed and implemented in a reasonable and cost effective way. We can’t know if those conditions are met until we see final rule next year and how it is implemented by states.”

While less explicit, other company spokespersons also distanced themselves from the report.

Even the Journal editorial included phrases indicating its objections were close to much ado about nothing, saying:

Public Service Company of New Mexico says it is in good shape to deal with new regulations as it is already planning to shut down two of the four coal-fired generating units at the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington and replace that energy production mostly with natural gas. . . .

Even without the new plan, the U.S. Department of Energy has predicted that energy costs will increase by 13 percent by 2020.

And another point worth considering: The rules might not even go into effect, and even if they do, it could be too little too late in terms of climate change. From New York Times columnist Frank Bruni:

The Obama administration did unveil a bold climate-change measure last week. Or, rather, it signaled its intent to act: We’ll have to wait and see whether Congress figures out a way to foil the president or the courts gum things up. The plan as it stands would cut carbon pollution from American power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

But that may be too little, too late, according to an assessment last year by John Podesta, now a counselor to President Obama, in an interview with Harper’s Magazine before he joined the White House staff in late 2013. . . .

Podesta apparently reviewed what had been proposed and actually done in terms of carbon emissions and the like.

“But 50 years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” he said. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.”

From the Harper’s story:

The Obama Administration’s newly proposed regulations on power plants illustrate how the president continues to fall short of what science demands in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change. From a scientific perspective, there is much less to these regulations than either industry opponents or environmental advocates are claiming.

The reason is rooted in the White House’s habit of moving the goalposts on climate policy. From the earliest days of his presidency, Obama has repeatedly chosen 2005 as the baseline year for any proposed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In backing the 2009 Waxman–Markey climate bill, for example, Obama pledged to reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. But the standard baseline year for measuring emissions — employed for decades by governments, scientists, advocates, and journalists around the world, and codified in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — has always been 1990. Given the proper 1990 baseline, Obama’s pledge amounted to a reduction of less than 4 percent.

A story and chart from the Carbon Tax Center show just how little impact on the environment the new rules will have. Meanwhile, the U.S. climate has already changed.

But even if the rules have little effect on future climate, there is another important consideration, pointed out by both the NRDC and the EPA – benefits to human health.

From ClimateProgress:

. . .when the EPA modeled the actual regulations, it found annual costs to the economy of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion annually, versus benefits of $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030. The benefits are primarily thanks to the health effects, which include avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children.

Those benefits will not be far in the future, they will arrive much faster. And because poor and minority Americans are disproportionately harmed by coal pollution, they’ll also enjoy the bulk of those benefits.

Meanwhile, the Journal chooses to back money over health and the environment.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland

    Did you really expect anything different from the Koch Journal?

  • Jim Dawson

    Great piece, Denise. It’s disappointing that our old paper is playing ignorant on perhaps the most serious threat the people on the planet face.

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