The White House is using children’s health to defend new federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
The proposal has come under attack from opponents who seek to highlight the high economic costs of the rule.
“There’s no doubt there are some states where this is an issue that presents a different sort of political challenges, particularly coal-producing states, and there’s no doubt the polluters will come after this rule and they’ll try to attack it,” White House senior adviser John Podesta said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor Friday morning.
“They’ll try to put it squarely in the context of political campaigns that are ongoing in 2014,” Podesta said. “But I think anyone who wants to go out and talk about the benefits of this rule … they’ll find the politics is such you can defend taking action here and the public will support that.”
The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule that would cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030. The rule has been vigorously attacked by some states, Republicans and the coal industry for setting the stage for skyrocketing electricity costs and huge job losses.
But the Obama administration has downplayed the economic costs of the rule while promoting the public health benefits of reducing power plant emissions: specifically, the health benefits to children.
President Obama announced the EPA’s carbon rule last week at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., while visiting children whose asthma had been made worse by air pollution.
Often, these illnesses are aggravated by air pollution – pollution from the same sources that release carbon and contribute to climate change,” Obama said in his weekly address. “And for the sake of all our kids, we’ve got to do more to reduce it.”
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy also tried to draw parallels between reducing carbon dioxide emissions and childrens’ health while announcing the agency’s carbon rule on Monday.
“About a month ago, I took a trip to the Cleveland Clinic,” McCarthy said. “I met a lot of great people, but one stood out—even if he needed to stand on a chair to do it. Parker Frey is 10 years old. He’s struggled with severe asthma all his life. His mom said despite his challenges, Parker’s a tough, active kid—and a stellar hockey player.”
“But sometimes, she says, the air is too dangerous for him to play outside,” McCarthy added. “In the United States of America, no parent should ever have that worry.”
The EPA says its carbon rule would prevent 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in just the first year the rule goes into effect. But these alleged health benefits do not come from reducing carbon dioxide, they come from so-called “co-benefits” from hazardous air pollutant reductions — that will supposedly happen alongside carbon dioxide reductions.
Reducing carbon dioxide itself does nothing to directly impact human health because it is not a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of human existence — when we exhale, we breathe out CO2, which plants in turn breathe in for sustenance.
In fact, the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding said “ambient concentrations of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases, whether at current levels or at projected ambient levels under scenarios of high emissions growth over time, do not cause direct adverse health effects such as respiratory or toxic effects.”
“All public health risks and impacts described here as a result of elevated atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases occur via climate change,” the EPA noted.
This means that public health impacts from CO2 are indirectly accrued through global warming, which don’t occur for decades or even centuries, so there is much less certainty surrounding the costs and benefits of reducing greenhouse gases.
Regardless, the EPA claims the carbon rule will have up to $93 billion in health benefits in 2030. These will come from reducing air particles such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOX) and particulate matter 2.5 micrograms or less (PM2.5).
Reducing SO2 and NOX levels would in turn reduce exposure to PM2.5 which the EPA says is a deadly air pollutant. Likewise, reducing NOX levels would help reduce exposure to ground-level ozone in area with concentrations of volatile organic compounds, (VOCs).
The EPA says that the benefits from ozone reductions will increase as global warming causes temperatures to rise. The agency argues that “warm, stagnant air tends to increase the formation of ozone” and global warming “is likely to increase levels of ground-level ozone in already polluted areas of the United States and increase the number of days with poor air quality.”
But has this happened? Not really. According to EPA data, national average ozone levels fell 25 percent between 1980 and 2012. But while ozone levels have fallen, Center for Disease Control data shows asthma prevalence has increased in the last decade.
“The number of people diagnosed with asthma grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009,” according to the CDC. “One in 12 people (about 25 million, or 8% of the population) had asthma in 2009, compared with 1 in 14 (about 20 million, or 7%) in 2001.”
A similar trend can be found for PM2.5, emissions of which fell 57 percent between 1990 and 2012. Since 2000, PM2.5 emissions have fallen 45 percent, according to EPA data. Air concentrations of PM2.5 fell 37 percent since 2000.
In fact, aggregate emissions of six common air pollutants — carbon monoxide, lead, NOX, VOCs, SO2 and particulate matter — have plummeted 67 percent since 1990. All while asthma rates continue to increase.
So will more EPA rules lead to less asthma? Some are not so optimistic.
“Childhood asthma is also a red herring,” writes Marlo Lewis, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Talking about kids like Parker Frey diverts public attention from the core issues: (1) the illegality of EPA’s new source carbon rule, the prerequisite to today’s action; (2) the carbon rules’ eerie resemblance to the muddle of market-rigging policies rejected by Congress when the public turned against the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill” and “the costly futility of forcing Americans to use less carbon-based energy before commercially-viable substitutes exist.”
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