The Obama administration has taken great pains to frame its Clean Power Plan as an immediate solution for an immediate, quantifiable problem. President Obama and other high-level administration surrogates have routinely focused on easy-to-picture issues like asthma, rather than the more existential threat of an increasingly warming planet, as they try to sell an ambitious plan to lower the power sector’s carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels over the next 15 years.

So the key takeaway of the first independent, peer-reviewed study on the U.S. EPA regulation’s public health benefits was likely music to the administration’s ears.

“The general narrative is addressing climate change will be costly, and the benefits will now accrue for generations,” said Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future and one of the study’s co-authors. “We take a look at this and see there are important benefits and changes in air quality that accrue in the present, and close to home.”

Burtraw said that when the power sector begins shifting away from coal-fired power plants and toward energy sources with smaller carbon footprints, like natural gas, wind and solar, the health benefits would begin materializing immediately. “Really, we are talking about a matter of days to weeks,” he said.

None of the health benefits the study focused on would come from reduced carbon dioxide emissions, however, but rather, they would come from reduced output of sulfur dioxide and other emissions.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, analyzed three different approaches to reducing the power sector’s carbon footprint: an “inside the fence line” approach where power providers improve efficiency at coal-fired plants, but do not shift production to alternative sources; a scenario where the power sector utilizes all four “building blocks” EPA has suggested, including an aggressive use of energy efficiency programs; and the imposition of a $43-per-ton price on carbon dioxide emissions.

Researchers found that the second and third scenarios would scale back power plant emissions enough to prevent more than 3,000 premature deaths each year from heart attacks, respiratory illnesses and other pollution-related health problems.

Interestingly, the first scenario would actually lead to a slight increase in premature deaths. Burtraw explained that after utilities invest in carbon capture technology and other scrubbing mechanisms for their coal-fired plants, “in some regions, those plants actually are utilized more. And with their greater utilization comes greater emissions.”

Getting Americans ‘on board’ with the health angle
The results were dismissed by the coal industry. “We know that taking coal power offline will lead to electricity disruptions including blackouts, brownouts and rationing,” said American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity spokeswoman Laura Sheehan. “These disruptions are not just nuisances they jeopardize hospital and emergency care, city sanitation systems and regular commerce.”

The Obama administration, on the other hand, welcomed the study, saying it “provides independent confirmation by independent scientists that EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan is on the right track.”

Indeed, the results fit well with the White House’s narrative. President Obama focused on childhood asthma when he first announced the Clean Power Plan last summer (ClimateWire, April 10).

Last month, the White House circled back to the issue of health problems. “There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home,” Obama said at a Washington, D.C., event focused on climate change. “All of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or from climate” (ClimateWire, April 8).

The health care messaging makes sense, said Christopher Borick, who directs Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion and has polled extensively on environmental issues. “Even when Americans accept the reality of climate change, they continue to generally give it low saliency in terms of issues on the agenda.”

“When you think about public health matters like asthma or any breathing issues that many Americans face, it’s real and it’s immediate,” Borick said. “The threats from climate change are major and potentially devastating, but to many individuals, remain abstract. The more you can get individuals to think about carbon and fossil fuel matters through the lens of public health, the more likely you are to get them on board in policy efforts to reduce emissions.”

So expect to hear a lot more about this report from the White House as it prepares to release its final regulations later this year.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500