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One Cheer for Obama's EPA Carbon Standards

President Obama’s proposed carbon emission standards are a good thing. However, while reducing carbon pollution by making coal burning uneconomical is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. Perhaps more importantly, the rationales used by the administration and its allies to promote these standards are counter-productive. This is why I can only give one cheer.

In view of the right’s immediate attack on what is to date the Obama administration’s biggest environmental initiative, it is not surprising that many progressives and major environmental groups are rushing to defend it. Most of those defenses counter right-wing arguments that the proposed regulations will drastically increase household energy expenses, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and even cause a recession.

For example the main point of the article published on June 2nd by the online listserve PORTSIDE was: “The [EPA’s] forthcoming regulations on greenhouse gas emissions will provide legally required protection for the health and welfare of Americans at a cheap cost, while allowing states flexibility – contrary to media fear mongering about the landmark standards.” The article, which is supportive of the proposed rules, counters the right-wing “myths” about the new EPA regulations with “facts” showing their real impact.

• For instance, despite the Chamber of Commerce and Fox News’ prediction that the new standards will cost 225,000 jobs, economists expect lost jobs will be balanced by new ones the standards will create. The National Resources Defense Council predicted the new standards would create 274,000 new jobs.

• The post also exposed the claim that the new regulations would cost households hundreds of dollars each year, when in fact, the standard’s promotion of increased efficiency could save the average family almost as much annually.

But doesn’t this ignore the reasons for enacting the regulations in the first place? The facts that these regulations are not financially burdensome, and will spur economic growth, do not address whether this change will help stave off the human-generated collapse of the biosphere. These arguments suggest that we can grow our way out of the approaching global catastrophe. Is this a good tactic when the physical, chemical and biological sciences tell us that growth itself is the principle cause of this problem?

The call for more jobs is understandable, but even green jobs will generate more economic activity which, no matter how efficiently done, will spawn more carbon emissions. There is a more environmentally sound way to put people back to work. We need to divide the work that needs to be done among more people and combine this with calls for substantial wage increases. This would decrease the amount of hours worked per person, and cut unemployment, while enabling workers to earn sufficient income, without increasing carbon emissions.

Gains in efficiency that reduce costs aren’t necessarily good for the environment either. In a profit-driven economy reducing the cost of electricity makes goods and services cheaper which, in turn, promotes increased purchasing and accompanying increased electricity usage. In our current system, increased efficiency is likely to increase carbon emissions unless it is coupled with programs that reduce consumption.

We need to advocate for the proposed regulations not because they are inexpensive job-creators, but because they are a necessary, although far from adequate, first step toward reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. That’s why I’ll give a cheer, but only one.  Read More 
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