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Sound-Off: An In-Depth Look at What President Obama's 'Clean Power Plan' Means

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Barack Obama
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This week, the Obama administration released its “Clean Power Plan” that marks the first ever limit on carbon pollution from existing power plants. By 2030, existing power plants will have to reduce their carbon emissions by 30 percent, with 25 percent of that drop coming by 2020. The news was widely praised by climate scientists, doctors, and public health advocates.

Quite predictably some conservatives immediately slammed the plan, claiming that it is big government overreach. It is easy to write this off as another inside-the-beltway battle between Republicans and Democrats; especially over something as seemingly technical as limiting carbon pollution. But the proposed pollution limits are something we should all care about as Americans, and the African American community in particular should praise these rules as our community tends to get the raw end of the climate change stick.

First, I’d like to point out that this isn’t the first time we’ve regulated power plant pollution.  In fact, we limit many other power plant contaminants except for carbon pollution.  There are health safeguards for acid rain, smog, soot, mercury, and lead emissions. And during the debate over each of their proposed versions, , opponents bemoaned the dire consequences, none of which, as my CAP colleague Daniel J. Weiss points out, came true. In fact, electricity rates are LOWER now than when President Obama took office, even after he set new limits on dangerous mercury from power plants. 

Second, I believe (and many others do too) that we have a moral obligation to not completely destroy the earth before its inherited by future generations. I’m not being melodramatic when I say that if we do nothing, there are going to be dire consequences all across the country, as our best scientists warned us again last month.. Some of the nation’s most populous cities are at risk from more flooding and sea level rise.  Large portions of the country are already suffering from intensified droughts, wildfires and rising sea levels, as in Norfolk, Virginia.

We’ve all recently seen the very visible effects of climate change. From Katrina to Sandy, taxpayers are constantly footing the bill for climate-driven disasters. In the past three years, the most damaging extreme weather events took 1,221 lives and caused $208 billion in damages.. But there are other costs as well, and those are the health costs. Studies predict that climate change driven increases in temperature will increase urban smog.  With that comes premature deaths and more asthma attacks. 

The old saying is that when America catches a cold, African Americans catch the flu. The same could be said regarding climate change. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that African Americans were at the center of the climate change storm, stating that “[a]lthough African Americans contribute 20 percent less than white households to the causes of global warming, research suggests they are more vulnerable to the types of extreme weather that…is exacerbated by environmental changes.”

Study after study shows that the African American community is greatly at risk from climate change and air pollution. The University of Southern California found that blacks had a higher rate of heat related mortality; blacks are more likely to live in counties with high ozone smog pollution, which contributes to increased asthma attack rates; a study of the 12 worst performing coal plants showed that of those living within 3 miles of the plant, 76 percent were people of color; and 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant.

The good news is that the proposed Clean Power Plant plan would slash some of the pollutants most responsible for these horrible health threats.  The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the plan will save up to 6,600 lives annually, and there will be “an estimated 150,000 fewer asthma attacks in children.”

So while these new pollution restrictions won’t be the silver bullet to stop climate change and clean up our air pollution, they are a critical step. The states will have the time and flexibility to design a cost-effective cleanup that makes sense for their state.  It’s also important to remember that inaction is not an option.  We can sit around and wait for the rest of the world to act first while our communities continue to suffer, but I think we’re better than that.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123.

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