The heat is on

International fight over climate change could turn on a federal appeals court ruling on EPA authority over air pollution

This past summer was the hottest in recorded history and possibly in thousands of years. But the sweltering streak really extends much longer, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with record land and sea surface temperatures for 16 straight months, which represents the longest such trend in 137 years.

There's not much serious debate within the scientific community about why this is happening. The rapid expansion of human activities in the industrial age that have enhanced the "greenhouse effect" through which emissions trap heat within earth's atmosphere are at the heart of the problem. The solution? To dramatically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that civilization spews into the air.


That effort now faces what could prove a critical turning point as oral arguments in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan are scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. If the EPA can't regulate carbon from coal-fired power plants, there is little chance the nation — and possibly the world — can forestall the impending environmental disaster.

Why? Because power plants burning fossil fuels are the largest single generator of carbon dioxide and represent about 40 percent of total carbon pollution. Congress has already made it clear that it is wholly incapable of passing needed legislation — lawmakers from coal-producing states are simply too great a hurdle, and the politics have gotten too polarized, with conservatives often siding with crackpot deniers rather than recognizing the compelling evidence presented by actual climate experts.

How did it come to this? Nine years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide can be regulated as a pollutant, but that was in the context of new cars. Regulating power plants may prove even more contentious. The Supreme Court signaled as much when it stayed the Clean Power Plan in February and kicked the case to the Court of Appeals.

Here's the problem. States can attempt to regulate power plant emissions — as Maryland already has done under Gov. Larry Hogan — but air pollution doesn't respect state borders and typically drifts from one place to another. Unless the courts uphold the Clean Power Plan, the prospects for the U.S. to achieve any serious reduction in greenhouse gas generation would seem nil. If that's the case, global efforts may fall apart as well.

That leaves Maryland in an exceptionally vulnerable position. With 3,100 miles of tidal shoreline, Maryland would suffer greatly as sea levels rise. By the year 2100, for instance, the state could see high tides on the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay six feet above where they are today — and far worse during serious storms. Ocean City, Annapolis and downtown Baltimore would be devastated, or perhaps relocated (if future leaders have sufficient foresight), with billions of dollars worth of property underwater.

Opponents of the Clean Power Plan have argued that it will lead to the shuttering of many coal-fired power plants and increased electricity costs for consumers. But that hasn't been the result of state regulations to date. Even if there is an adverse impact on electricity prices, the reduction in pollution comes with a huge windfall for taxpayers — fewer communities devastated by floods, sparing businesses and residents and the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars. And there are the thousands of jobs created by greater investment in renewable energy and the health savings accrued from having fewer of the more noxious pollutants like sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides that are generated by burning coal.

We can appreciate the economic challenges that have hit coal-producing states like Kentucky and West Virginia. But the well-being of the planet and all its inhabitants can't be sacrificed to meet the short-term interests of those communities that have depended on mining jobs. States have failed to regulate power plant emissions sufficiently, and the EPA must be allowed to act under its Clean Air Act authority. The consequences of federal inaction — and the roadblock to international cooperation that it would represent — are too alarming to even seriously consider siding with the plaintiffs.