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Climate target No. 1: coal

The nation cannot allow the carbon output of its worst greenhouse gas emitters to continue unchecked.

June 26, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • At the heart of President Obama's attack on climate change is a desire to create new emissions standards for coal-fired plants. Power plants produce a third of all the greenhouse gases in the country, and coal plants are the biggest offenders. Above: President Obama unveiled his plan to combat global warming at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
At the heart of President Obama's attack on climate change is a desire… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

President Obama's omnibus proposal to combat global warming addresses the issue in all its many facets — truck emissions, high-level diplomacy, more federal land for solar and wind projects. Think of it as a target covered with water balloons. The president won't be able to keep all of them from bursting as his opponents in Congress and industry start throwing darts. The key is to not let them hit the bull's eye: new emissions standards for coal-fired plants.

Power plants produce a third of all the greenhouse gases in the country, and coal plants are the biggest offenders. If the nation can drastically reduce the plants' carbon footprint, it will significantly reduce emissions that contribute to warming. And there's a lot more in Obama's aggressive push against climate change, including an overdue effort to help states and municipalities cope with the effects of warming that already are being seen and that are expected to worsen for the next few decades because of past inaction: fires, flooding and catastrophic weather.

The president's opponents already are complaining that the technology isn't in place for capturing carbon from power plant emissions and that developing it will be costly. They're right, but whose fault is that? Previous legislation that would have funded technology development withered under attacks from industry lobbyists. (Though the industry does have the technology to switch to cleaner gas.) Carbon taxes — the simplest, most effective way to encourage cleaner energy while minimizing the effect on the average consumer — also never made it through Congress.

VIDEO: Climate change gets its close up

What's still possible are administrative actions, and the president seems eager to press for almost all of them simultaneously, including $8 billion in loan guarantees for clean energy innovation, part of which could go toward developing cleaner power plants. Because global warming is, well, global, Obama wisely included better-targeted foreign diplomacy. He showed this month how it can work when his talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping led to a joint commitment to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbon coolants sometimes called "super greenhouse gases."

The United States is still a couple of years away from actual regulations, and lawsuits and political battles will almost certainly delay if not derail many of them. The president should keep his eye on the centerpiece. Just as the nation cannot afford to humor climate-change deniers, it cannot allow the carbon output of its worst greenhouse gas emitters to continue unchecked.

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