One of my pet peeves is the way environmentalists phrase action on climate change as saving "the planet." What climate change legislation is about, first and foremost, is self-preservation.
I thought of that reading my colleague Damon Linker, who argues that Obama's new climate regulations aren't worth doing because they help the ecosystem and other nations at the expense of the American worker.
On Twitter, the debate quickly centered around whether the U.S. has a moral obligation to poor nations who will be destroyed in large part by its historical emissions. But the truth is that even if we forget all about the roughly 6.8 billion people who aren't American, these rules still make perfect sense, for three reasons.
First, out of sheer self-preservation, the U.S. must do something about climate change. While, as Linker notes, America is relatively less threatened than other nations, that is mainly a result of just how cataclysmic unchecked climate change will be to other nations. The U.S. has "only" about 5 million people below four feet above high tide, as compared to Bangladesh, where sea level rise is projected to displace roughly a 10th of its population and drown 17 percent of its land by 2050 (and more as time progresses).
But climate change will be no picnic even for America. As the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the National Climate Assessment make clear, it will suffer from extreme heat waves, probable perma-drought in the Southwest and Great Plains, stronger storm surges from hurricanes, more extreme weather throughout the nation, and many other grim effects. And that's leaving aside medium- and long-term projections on its current emissions trajectory, which could very well threaten the existence of the American state.
Climate change is, of course, an international problem, which is why the international logic of these Environmental Protection Agency regulations is so important. To save ourselves, we must work toward an international treaty.
Second, coal-fired power plants are terrible for all sorts of other reasons. Linker assumes that the highly suspect Chamber of Commerce study about the regulations' effect on jobs is at least half right, but doesn't consider the other side of the ledger. It turns out coal power dumps all manner of terrible pollutants into the air in addition to carbon dioxide, stuff that causes an estimated 10,000-plus deaths per year, as well as various other ailments. Estimates show that while EPA regulations do cost money, they save dramatically more money elsewhere in the economy, by preventing illness and premature death.
Third, it's the law. The EPA is legally obligated to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act. And while under the second President Bush it tried to squirm out of its obligation, it was sued and lost before the Supreme Court. So this isn't just a policy decision by the administration; it's also following the rule of law.
In fact, the law suggests that the new EPA regulations should have been stronger still. After a Supreme Court ruling in 2007, the regulatory agency was instructed that the law required it to regulate carbon dioxide. However, a strict reading of the statue suggests that the EPA should have effectively banned coal power altogether, which would have caused enormous economic disruption. So instead, it adopted a rather stretched version of the "tailoring rule" to keep from killing coal altogether. Arguably, the new regulations are less onerous than the law requires — a move, in other words, to minimize their impact on the American worker.
For my part, I do think the U.S. must act to stop a force which may well kill millions of our fellow human beings. Whether or not you believe in the full equality of humankind, it seems like we have at least some moral obligation to try at least a little bit to prevent Bangladesh from being obliterated.
But you don't have to believe that to accept the urgent necessity for action on climate change. Even on America-only grounds, the case for action on climate change is clear.