The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month announced controls on carbon emissions from new power plants in the cause of combating climate change. While practical questions concerning technological feasibility and cost may legitimately follow this action, the core battle is between those who take climate change seriously and those who do not.
The Obama administration, buttressed by the majority scientific consensus, is a believer. These proposed standards are the first action in President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan, announced in June but foreshadowed in the president's inaugural address earlier this year.
Under these rules, new large natural gas-fired turbines would have to meet a limit of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, while new small natural gas-fired turbines would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.
Further, new coal-fired units would have to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour but could choose to average emissions over multiple years, giving those units additional operational flexibility.
This is what a public agency does if it believes the problem is both real and serious -- and power plants are logical places to focus. The electricity sector emits 33 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and 60 percent of stationary source greenhouse gas emissions.
But it isn't just about climate change in isolation, as important as that threat is. In announcing the standards, which may yet be influenced by input from the public comment period now underway, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said, "Climate change is one of the most significant public health challenges of our time."
And so it is, which is why groups like the American Lung Association support the proposed standards, recognizing that warmer temperatures may increase ozone and smog, linked to serious health effects such as asthma, heart attacks and stroke.
Yet to the critics of the standards in industry and Congress, it's all about jobs and the economy and saving coal's traditional place in energy production. For example, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, vows to "keep fighting this silly science" -- that strong core note of denial again -- in the interests of protecting "the families who make a living in coal... ."
In fact, the economy itself is every day deciding that cleaner natural gas is going to play a greater role in future energy production and leaders like Mr. Murphy should instead be protecting the lungs of everybody and trying to limit the planet's vulnerability to the wildly erratic weather that is climate change's obvious calling card.
The EPA is doing its job. America can't solve climate change by itself, but American leadership can show the way for a country like China, which is choking on its own pollution.