After the National Climate Assessment (NCA) drew major attention to the climate challenge, the acting chief of the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, tried to discredit the report. Endorsed by 13 federal agencies, the NCA warns that climate change will inflict major damage across the United States and could cost billions of dollars in the coming decades. Echoing the U.S. president’s skepticism, Wheeler said the congressionally mandated report had been skewed by highlighting worst-case scenarios at the direction of the Obama administration.
His comments were inaccurate. The report’s preparation started in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, but most of the work was conducted during the Trump administration.
Instead of trying to discredit the report, here are four steps the EPA should take to address climate change:
1. Tell the Truth About the Dangers of Climate Change to Americans’ Health and Welfare
Wheeler’s inaccurate claims about slanted research in the climate report are belied by the EPA’s own finding that climate change endangers public health and welfare, which has been thoroughly documented and upheld by U.S. courts.
The NCA report examines a wide range of scenarios and concludes “that the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social and economic wellbeing are rising.”
2. Strengthen Clean Car Standards
Cars and trucks are the largest U.S. source of heat-trapping pollution, so an EPA administrator carrying out his or her duty to protect the environment should start by strengthening clean car standards. Instead, Wheeler has proposed freezing vehicle emissions standards at 2020 levels and revoking states’ authority to set standards that are more stringent than the federal requirements.
Background: EPA’s proposal would undermine a trend set in 2011, when the EPA, the Transportation Department and the California Air Resources Board, along with the auto industry and consumer advocates, agreed to roughly double average fuel efficiency of new passenger vehicles by 2025, which would cut average greenhouse gas emissions in half. Since then, vehicle technology has improved faster than anticipated. Meanwhile, Tesla’s Model 3 electric vehicle has become one of the best-selling cars in America, showing that there is a market for well-designed electric cars.
Early in the Trump administration, an alliance of automakers asked that the fuel efficiency standards be reconsidered. The car companies got more than they bargained for: Rather than propose a slower ramp up in the standards calculated to keep California on board and avoid lengthy litigation, as automakers had hoped, EPA proposed in August to freeze the standards from 2020 onward and revoke California’s permission to set stronger standards, provoking a forceful rebuke from 20 state attorneys general.
What should EPA do?
Scrap its proposed rollback and start working on stronger standards for 2026 - 2030. The future is electric and automakers have promised to introduce dozens of new plug-in models over the next few years. Electric cars are already cleaner than conventional gasoline or diesel vehicles even though much of the electricity used to power them currently comes from fossil fuels. And unlike conventional vehicles, EVs will get cleaner every year as more wind and solar power is added to our electricity mix. It’s time for the federal government to recognize and accelerate this trend, as recently proposed in legislation introduced by Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
3. Strengthen the Clean Power Plan
Coal- and gas-fired power plants are the second largest source of heat-trapping pollution in the United States, so an EPA administrator carrying out his or her duty to protect the environment would strengthen the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which aimed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Instead, Wheeler has proposed replacing the CPP with a rule so lax that the agency’s own analysis shows that it could result in 1,400 additional deaths per year.
Background: The Clean Power Plan was finalized in August 2015, but the Supreme Court stayed its implementation pending the outcome of litigation brought by then Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt – who would become the Trump administration’s first EPA chief — and others. Nonetheless, wind and solar power are expanding far more rapidly than had been anticipated when the CPP was written and emissions from U.S. power plants have already declined by 28 percent since 2005, compared to the 32 percent reduction by 2030 that EPA projected in its original analysis of the CPP’s impact.
What should EPA do?
Scrap its proposed rollback and strengthen the original CPP. The cost of electricity from solar and wind declined steeply since the standard was written and many states are adopting stronger clean electricity standards, such as 50 percent clean energy by 2030 or even 100 percent clean energy by 2050 or earlier. EPA would set a much stronger rule today if it were simply to retain the flexible state-driven approach in the original standard and update the assumptions it used to set the emission reduction targets.
4. Cut Emissions of Climate Super Pollutants
Methane traps more than 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over the short run and synthetic hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used as refrigerants can trap thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide, so an EPA administrator carrying out his or her duty to would rein in emissions of these super pollutants. Instead, Wheeler has proposed to weaken rules to reduce methane leaks from the oil and gas industry and has abandoned efforts to phase down the use of HFCs.
Background: EPA issued rules to limit methane leaks from new oil and gas wells in 2016. Despite recent studies suggesting that methane leaks from the oil and gas industry are 60 percent higher than EPA had estimated, Wheeler proposed weakening requirements designed to limit venting and flaring of methane during natural gas production.
EPA issued a rule in 2015 to phase out the use of HFCs when safer alternatives are available. The Washington DC federal appeals court struck down part of that rule in a split decision last year. Rather than implement the part of the rule that was upheld, EPA abandoned the entire rule and the administration declined to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
What should EPA do?
In order to fulfill the responsibility of his position, Wheeler should propose ways to expand rules to reduce methane emissions by requiring leak detection and repair throughout the oil and gas production and distribution system. And he should propose a revised rule to phase out HFCs when better alternatives are available, designed to pass muster with the court.
These four steps would begin to foster the climate action needed to lessen some of the threats outlines in the NCA. Absent better EPA leadership, the moment is ripe for U.S. states, regions and cities to step up efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions.