The Clean Power Plan: Critical Role for Cities

Posted by ISC Staff
on July 17, 2014

For years, local leadership on global climate disruption has inspired me, given me hope and kept me going. But national leadership? Not so much.


Until now. At long last, we see the beginnings of a serious and sustained federal government response to the climate crisis.


Three recent reports reiterate what most Americans already knew: we are in deep trouble, and will need to act swiftly and smartly to (quite literally) stem the tide. Two of these reports came from thousands of leading scientists in the US and around the globe: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (March) and the National Climate Assessment (May). The third – Risky Business – came out of a project led by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. It puts a hefty price tag on climate disruption in the US: between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of coastal property will likely be below sea level by 2050; the number of days with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees may triple, and farm production could drop 14 percent. Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, called the report “yet another indication that the financial community is taking climate change seriously.”


Against this backdrop of doom, the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan is more than “one of the strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change.” It’s something to like. Something to get excited about. Something to rally behind.


At the heart of the plan are EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards aimed at cutting climate pollution from the US power sector 30 percent by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels). Not everybody loves it, of course. It’s a new rule, which usually means controversy, fiery rhetoric and lots of litigation.


“I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.” – Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson


But this new rule is necessary and smart. It’s necessary because it’s becoming painfully obvious that we can’t keep going the way we have been going. Even Hank Paulson gets that. The former Bush Administration official, not known for his tree-hugging tendencies, put it this way in a recent New York Times op-ed piece calling for a national carbon tax: “I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain. We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.”


This rule begins steering us away from that giant mountain, but in a reasonable and intelligent way. The emission reduction targets, for example, are custom tailored for each state, based on their energy mix and what’s achievable. In addition, states will have flexibility on how to reach those targets via an a la carte menu of solutions including: improving energy efficiency (in both the generation and consumption of energy), fuel-switching (for example from coal to natural gas) and increasing their generation and use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. States can build on existing programs, and even team up with neighboring states. This “portfolio approach” allows states to find cost-effective ways to hit their targets.


States (or their delegated authorities) will have lead responsibility for implementing these new standards. But cities can – and should – play a critical role. We urge the cities in our network of more than 500 US communities across the country to get involved, in at least three ways:


First: keep going! Continue making your cities and communities more climate-smart and resilient. This is no time to take your foot off of the pedal. Across the country, we see cities transforming themselves into living, breathing climate solutions: reigning in sprawl; increasing the energy efficiency of their building stocks and transportation systems; transitioning to renewable energy; and more. Your leadership helps your own community, shows that climate solutions are possible and inspires others to act – all of which will make implementation of the Clean Power Plan faster and easier.


Second: actively support the adoption of these rules. Public comments on the proposed rule are due on October 16. And four public hearings will take place across the country in late July. Show up. Weigh in. Share your experiences. Tell your stories.


“When America proves what’s possible, other countries are going to come along.” – President Barack Obama


Third, participate actively in the development and implementation of your state’s plan. Bring your considerable perspective, experience and leverage to the table. Advocate for those climate solutions that not only reduce climate pollution, but also alleviate poverty and spur new jobs and economic development opportunities in your communities. We’re all busy, and you don’t need another thing to do. But the stakes here are especially high – for our cities and for our species. The US shouldn’t be waiting on China or India to go first; it should be doing what many of its mayors and cities have been doing for a decade or more: leading. As President Obama put it recently in a speech at the annual dinner of the League of Conservation Voters: “When America proves what’s possible, other countries are going to come along.”



Steve Nicholas is ISC’s Vice President of US Programs. He is the former Sustainability Director for the City of Seattle and is coauthor of The Guide to Greening Cities.