Meet the New Symbol of Climate Change

EPA limits on coal emissions would save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

(Photo: Justine Schwinge/Getty Images)

Todd Woody is TakePart's senior editor for environment and wildlife.

Forget the polar bear. The new face of climate change is a child with asthma.

In proposing regulations today to slash carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent, the Obama administration made it clear it will sell the United States’ most sweeping move to fight global warming as a critical health issue.

“This is not just about disappearing polar bears and melting ice caps, though I like polar bears and I know about melting ice caps,” Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, declared at a press conference this morning. “This is about protecting our health and our homes. This is about protecting local economies and jobs.”

“Rising temperatures bring more smog, more asthma, and longer allergy seasons,” McCarthy added. “If your kid doesn’t use an inhaler, consider yourself a lucky parent, because one in 10 children in the U.S. suffers from asthma. Carbon pollution from power plants comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, putting our families at even more risk.”

It’s a smart strategy.

Some people may have a hard time getting their heads around the concept of climate change, but a child gasping for air as she reaches for her inhaler is easy to grasp.

If Obama’s Clean Power Plan staves off the inevitable legal challenges from the coal industry and its allies—the social media war has already begun—it alone will have a negligible impact on worldwide climate change. That’s because while power plants account for a third of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions, the country as a whole is only responsible for 17 percent of the planet’s carbon spew.

But the Clean Power Plan’s target of cutting carbon pollution 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 will have dramatic impact on communities located near coal-fired power plants.

The EPA says such a huge reduction in smog and soot will prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths a year, 150,000 asthma attacks in children, 3,300 heart attacks, and 490,000 missed school and work days.

The bottom line: The economic benefits will be worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion in 2030, dwarfing costs of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion, according to the EPA.

The most to gain from the plan are low-income and minority communities that bear the brunt of pollution from fossil fuel power plants. A 2012 study by the NAACP and environmental groups found that 39 percent of residents living within three miles of a coal-fired power plant are people of color. People living in the shadow of those power plants had annual incomes 15 percent below the national average.

“This is about environmental justice, too,” said McCarthy.

Just don’t expect the EPA to start shuttering coal power plants.

The Clean Power Plan leaves it up to each state to decide how to hit its pollution reduction target, which has yet to be identified. States can do that by making existing fossil fuel plants more efficient so they pollute less. Or states can boost the energy efficiency of appliances and other devices to reduce electricity demand and thus pollution. They can also ramp up production of renewable energy from solar, wind, and other sources so they rely on fewer fossil fuel plants.

And therein lies another bright spot: Putting solar panels on your roof is likely to get cheaper if the Clean Power Plan triggers a boom in green energy.

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