Editorial: Climate protection needs a champion

Published: Sunday, Jun. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

During his February State of the Union address, President Barack Obama asked Congress to send him legislation to reform immigration, reduce gun violence and combat climate change.

Immigration legislation is happening, at least in the Senate. Gun violence legislation has stalled. Congress has done nothing on climate change.

Obama promised on climate change that if Congress "won't act soon to protect future generations, I will" – with executive actions.

A short three months after the president made that promise, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the Northern Hemisphere passed 400 parts per million, according to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By 2015 or 2016, the whole atmosphere will average 400 parts per million.

To understand the scale of that turning point, consider that before 20th-century industrialization, carbon dioxide concentration over the past million years ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million. Scientists believe that the last time carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million was in the Pliocene Epoch, between 3 million and 5 million years ago. Sea levels were much higher, at levels that would flood major coastal cities today, and global average temperatures were 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today's.

Worse, however, is the extreme speed at which carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing. Let's not turn our eyes away from what we can expect if that continues: More severe storms and floods in some regions, more frequent drought in others, rising sea levels threatening coastlines. In California, we can expect our Sierra snowpack to shrink.

So it's a step forward that Obama announced executive actions to combat climate change on Tuesday.

Reduce carbon emissions

Power plants are the largest major source of emissions in the United States, but we have no federal standards for them to reduce carbon pollution.

So the president ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to develop the first carbon pollution standards for existing and new power plants, with a proposal by next June and a final rule by June 2015. This is especially important for coal-fired power plants and should further encourage the trend of utilities switching to gas-fired generation.

Lead international efforts

Again, the big issue is coal. The five largest coal users – China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan – account for 76 percent of total global coal use. Coal generates nearly 70 percent of China's power, more than half of India's power and 40 percent of U.S. power. Obama called for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas. The United States should be helping to develop alternatives to coal-fired plants.

Obama also promised to work on more bilateral agreements with China, India and others. A good start is the new agreement with China from the two-day presidential summit in California. The United States has been pushing for years to get China to support a phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons commonly used in air-conditioning units and refrigerators.

This is so much less than what the United States should be doing. In the absence of action by Congress, the president has little choice but to act. Climate change is one of the most serious threats confronting the nation and international community. Congress' refusal to recognize that threat is a reckless dereliction of duty.

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