Your climate, your health, and your government

The 2017 hurricane season got off to a tragically raucous start, with Harvey, Irma, Maria, and other storms wreaking havoc on the Caribbean. These cyclones inevitably sparked conversations among scientists and pundits alike on climate change’s role in causing or augmenting individual meteorological events. Discussions inevitably turned heated (pun intended).

Such talk surrounding climate change and acute events is somewhat cyclical, and not very useful (except perhaps for generally raising awareness of the dangers of a warming climate). Catastrophic environmental events make headlines with their death counts and projected recovery costs, but their direct links to human actions are foggy at best.

In fact — although major storms are heart (and wallet) wrenching for their destructive power — their overall impacts are small in comparison to effects of events that scientists have more confidently linked to human-induced climate change.

One such linkage exists between greenhouse gases and lung-choking air pollutants.

Traditionally, researchers studied air quality and climate change independently. Scientifically-established relationships between air quality and health go back decades to extreme events like the London Fog (1952) and Donora, PA (1948). Researchers linked thousands of excessive deaths and sicknesses in both events directly to nearby air pollution emissions.

We now know that air pollution from different sources has different health effects, and developed nations have taken note, enacting strict legislation to curb emissions. We’ve even found economically efficient ways of reducing emissions, such as by incentivizing companies to act on their own using markets. While there’s evidence that we need even cleaner air to completely wipe out air pollution health effects, we have a great track record to build off.

Efforts to regulate health degrading air pollutants were decades old by the time policy makers got serious about climate change.

As the new kids on the regulatory block, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have proven much more difficult to reduce. Besides its associated explosive political rhetoric, the physical approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is much different than for other air pollutants.

In regulating traditional air pollutants, early gains were achieved through innovation and deployment of control strategies. Coal plants could spend a few hundred million (or more) to install emissions control systems that removed noxious gases before they were released. Facilities could continue burning coal at the same rate while emitting far less (but not zero) harmful air pollutants.

Greenhouse gas controls have proven much more difficult to implement on a technological level, and there’s a reasonable amount of uncertainty that the ones that have been installed are working. They typically rely on capturing CO2 as it exists the stack and storing it, both of which are exceedingly difficult to achieve.

The best approach for reducing CO2 emissions is to change how we produce energy.

In this regard, we got a little lucky. In the 2000s, the number of fracking wells in the United States doubled. Fracking, in which fluid is jetted between layers of shale to extract large quantities of methane, led to a precipitous drop in the cost of producing electricity using natural gas. A recent (and somewhat controversial) report from the Energy Department noted that last year was the first time electricity produced by natural gas exceeded coal electricity production, which the report linked largely to cheap natural gas.

Natural gas, while cleaner burning and up to twice as efficient (read — half as much CO2 per unit electricity), is not the long-term solution that will keep us below the magical 2°C global warming target where scientists say some of the more extreme effects will kick in. For one, fracking has been linked with local disbenefits, such as polluted water and methane links near the sources. Plus, there’s a reliability issue — utilities are nervous to rely exclusively on an energy source that’s one natural gas pipeline rupture away from failure.

A major gripe that electric utilities have had with the Environmental Protection Agency over the past few years has been that the Agency has effectively been setting energy policy, restricting the companies to more expensive (albeit cleaner burning) forms of energy production. Although the Supreme Court established and clarified the EPA’s authority to regulate CO2 as it would any other pollutant in 2007 and 2014, respectively, utilities and a selection of states have continued the fight. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, intended to reduce CO2 emissions from the electricity industry, appears to be on its way out.

In this respect, the utilities have a good point. It would be helpful if, as a country, we aligned our energy production and air quality regulatory policies.

The most efficient way to ensure clean, reliable energy for future generations is to regulate electricity production, air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously.

We have some good examples that this can work. Nine northeastern states banded together starting in 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study found that not only is the program achieving its stated purpose, it’s also led to tens of thousands of lost work days to air pollution-related illnesses, and billions of dollars in monetized health benefits.

Unfortunately, federal government agencies aren’t taking similar action. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been moving along with his plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a rule established in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants. He declared to a roomful of Kentucky miners that “the war on coal is over.”

When the original Clean Power Plan was announced in 2015, the EPA’s accompanying analysis anticipated a large net benefit of up to $45 billion per year with the rule. Pruitt’s EPA has since revised these estimates by ignoring savings related to energy efficiency measures and restricting climate benefits calculations to the United States. The new analysis brushes aside most of the projected health benefits that would accompany a shift to cleaner energy production. The result is a 180-degree shift from the previous conclusions — these accounting tricks have turned net benefits into net costs.

These actions serve to prop up an industry — coal — that pollutes the air, contributes to global warming, and is increasingly less economic feasible.

In the near term, it is unlikely that the federal government will provide leadership in air quality or climate change policy in the United States. Cities and states across the country have a long history of working with industries to cut air pollution emissions, and have shown increasing willingness to make climate-oriented commitments. These certainly are steps in the right direction.

But protecting everyone from ill effects of air pollution and climate change will eventually require broad, coordinated action. We should use our previous regulatory successes as starting points for improving policies to achieve these aims instead of bluntly removing regulations. We should be designing policies that take a holistic look at energy production, instead of just the bottom line of the companies that produce it.

Air quality and health researcher arguing for scientifically sound policy.