This week, President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan — an ambitious set of regulations intended to combat climate change. If they go into effect, the Environmental Protection Agency will direct power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Exactly how to do so will be up to individual states, who can choose to switch to natural gas or renewable energy sources, or upgrade existing coal plants — if they choose to cooperate at all.
For now, the mood at the EPA is celebratory. “What a proud day it is for public health and protection of the environment,” Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said on a call with reporters. That’s even though at least a dozen states, concentrated in the coal belt, are ready to challenge the Clean Power Plan in court.
Indeed, the new regs hit coal power the hardest. It is, after all, the country’s biggest source of carbon emissions. So the Clean Power Plan goes after them not by taking a position on public health — a move made possible by the Clean Air Act, a 45-year-old piece of legislation written long before politicians started talking about climate change.
Public health is the calcium that strengthens the Clean Power Plan’s teeth. And this isn’t the first time the Feds connected public health to climate. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could could regulate greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. But it wasn’t an obvious decision. The act, written in 1970, was supposed to deal with soot and smog. Using it to regulate carbon dioxide requires some extra mental gymnastics.
That might be why, even though the Clean Power Plan targets carbon, the EPA’s literature on it touts the benefits of reducing other pollutants from coal plants — in part because that data is readily available. If cutting carbon emissions means cutting coal, the reasoning goes, then other nasty stuff goes away, too. Soot, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide belching out of smokestacks contribute to heart and lung disease. The EPA estimates the Clean Power Plan will help avoid between 2,700 and 6,600 premature deaths per year by 2030.
That’s a bank shot, though. It makes public health problems a secondary effect of climate change rather than a direct one, partially because connecting climate change and public health directly requires depending on projections, models of a world with more carbon in the atmosphere. Scientists are pretty sure those effects will be there, though.
Like what? One major problem will be ozone, which exacerbates respiratory problems like asthma. Ozone is the result of sunlight zapping certain gases in the atmosphere, so the hotter and sunnier the day, the more ozone in the air. “Ozone is usually a problem in the summer,” says Jonathan Buonocore, an environmental health researcher at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “With climate change you’re basically extending the ozone season.”
Higher temperatures could also lengthen pollen season, making allergies worse. Forest fires, likely to become more common with drought, release their own particulate matter into the air, again exacerbating respiratory issues. Tropical diseases like Chikungunya could creep into regions where it was once too cold. And extreme weather events like heat waves, hurricanes, and floods are obviously no good for the human body either.
So for physicians and health researchers already worried about climate change, the new regulations would be a twofer. “Making electricity through coal is public health enemy number one,” says George Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University. “We get long-term climate benefits but we also get the short-term local benefits of cleaner air.” Thurston was co-author of a recent survey of American Thoracic Society members that said a majority of them think heat, allergies, and fires made worse by climate change are already impacting their patients.
Making the case that reducing US reliance on coal is a win for clean air is easier in the short term. While climate change may cause sea levels to rise, exacerbate drought and floods, and make North America more hospitable to new diseases, those outcomes are hard to imagine. Higher asthma and allergy rates and more smog, though? Those are visible results.