The Economist reported this week that the temperature in Britain — for the first time in recorded history – reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Closer to home, a dozen cities in the American South have experienced record-breaking heat  this month. Across the U.S., wildfires now burn twice the average annual acreage compared to the acreage burned in the 1990’s. 

This latest data is part of the compelling and growing body of evidence that climate change is a clear and present danger to our health and well-being. Yet the urgency is lost on many. Consider the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that will impede the U.S. EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. The Court in West Virginia v. EPA said the Clean Air Act did not authorize EPA to limit power plants’ CO2 emissions in the comprehensive, yet flexible manner proposed in the Clean Power Plan. The Court ruled on this question despite the fact that the Clean Power Plan is not in effect now and EPA has no plans to reinstate it.

This is a surprising, deeply disappointing ruling on many levels, and time will tell how sweeping a ruling it really is. In this case, the Court embraced an emerging legal doctrine called the “major questions” doctrine, which says that any agency action with great “economic and political significance” requires an explicit Congressional authorization. It’s hard to find a federal law with more explicit direction than the Clean Air Act.  Section 111 of the Clean Air Act requires EPA to regulate stationary sources of any substance that “causes, or contributes significantly to, air pollution” and that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare."

One of the court’s criticisms of the Clean Power Plan was its approach to include generation shifting in the strategies to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and that this approach would have dramatic economic impacts. But in finding this, the Court ignored evidence that this “generation shift” from coal-fired electricity to renewables and natural gas was already well underway – encouraged by many factors apart from air pollution regulations.  

Despite the Court’s limitation on EPA powers, it did not prohibit the agency from regulating greenhouse gases in a more conventional, but less flexible fashion – such as requiring costly CO2 capture and sequestration technology at individual power plants. Interestingly, the Edison Electric Institute, an advocate for the electric power industry, supported the EPA’s position in the Supreme Court case. 

Global work

While this regulatory debate goes forward, other actions must, and will, be taken to continue reducing global and U.S. carbon emissions if we are to limit the impacts of climate change. The Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment tells us that the number of extremely hot days will increase across Indiana, with a dramatic increase in southern Indiana – from 7 extremely hot days a year in the past to 38 to 51 such days each year by 2050. The Assessment also reports that “Average annual precipitation has increased 5.6 inches since 1895, and more rain is falling in heavy downpours.”

Climate change is the environmental challenge of our lifetime, but the right solutions will bring many benefits. Conservation practices can increase the carbon sequestered in farm soils (nearly 12 million acres – more than half of Indiana’s land area — is planted in field crops). Protecting and expanding our roughly 5 million acres of forestland puts to work the most effective carbon capture technology available – our native trees – which in our cities and towns also reduce the urban heat island effect.  Expanding deployment of renewable energy will increase the nearly 11,000 jobs already in place in Indiana’s renewable energy economy. A new report from the group WorkingNation – “Green Jobs Now: Indiana” – forecasts that the demand for green jobs in Indiana will increase nearly 30% over the next five years.   

In contrast to the growth in renewable energy, coal’s share of electricity generation is predicted to drop from 66% of the state’s energy mix in 2020 to 35% in 2030. Cutting our reliance on coal as a power source provides so many more benefits than just reducing CO2 emissions. It will mean fewer rural Indiana lands and communities will be targeted for strip-mining, and fewer tons of toxic coal ash dumped on top of the millions of tons of ash now sitting in leaking lagoons and polluting our groundwater. 

The heat is on to redouble our collective and individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions now.

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