For atmospheric science professors, clean power rollbacks present an imminent threat to Washington’s climate

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Trees surrounding the UW campus.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rollback of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in June hinders climate efforts in Washington according to officials and scientists. 

Its replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, provides a much weaker regulation against greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately harming efforts to reduce them.

Though regulation of greenhouse gases will remain, the ACE is only expected to lower power sector emissions by between 0.7% and 1.5% by 2030, compared to the Clean Power Plan’s expected lowering rate of 32% by 2030. 

The onset of wildfire season already compromising the air quality in the Pacific Northwest gives rise to the question of how this new legislation will affect citizens in Washington state.

In a recent statement made in response to reports that the Trump administration had completed its replacement of the Clean Power Plan, Sen. Patty Murray held that “President Trump has already abdicated our nation’s leadership in the global fight against climate change, and with this latest move, is leaving communities in Washington state and across the country even more vulnerable to the growing dangers of the worsening climate crisis.” 

These key decisions made by the Trump administration could drastically impact public health and safety, as well as key sectors of the economy in Washington, such as outdoor recreation and well-being in our state, as well as key parts of our economy such as outdoor recreation and fisheries.

UW associate professor of atmospheric sciences Dargan Frierson also provided some insights into the expected effects of the new ACE rule.

“I see it as essentially just give-aways to fossil fuel executives,” Frierson said. “The Clean Power Plan had a lot of equity concerns worked out, where different states had different requirements based on how much energy they currently produce from different sources, so it was created to be very fair for all the different people involved. It’s sad to see all of that loss for the benefit of just a few executives.”

The immediate effects on air quality are due to particulate matter in the air from coal and fossil fuel burning. Fossil fuel burning is known to cause respiratory problems in civilians that could progress into thousands of premature deaths across the country.

“Coal burning is also the main source of mercury pollution, which is a neurotoxin,” Frierson said. “It causes really serious things like lower IQs and poor impulse control.” 

The effects of climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions have long been manifesting in Washington state, through the forms of ocean acidification, heat waves, sea-level rising, wildfire smoke, and direct damage to communities from wildfires. An increase in carbon pollution is only expected to exacerbate the problems already experienced here.

However, while efforts to combat climate change at the federal level appear to be dwindling, state efforts are looking more promising. Initiatives such as the Green New Deal are aiming to put the resources of the entire country together to reach 100% clean energy, which Washington, among other states, has agreed to pursue.

Bypassing SB 5116, Washington has committed to legislation with the ultimate goal of phasing out coal by 2025, as well as sponsoring programs to assist lower-income communities in achieving this goal. 

Many states, including Washington, continue to fight to commit to policies aimed at reducing climate change in the hopes of making it a federal priority once again. 

“If the main historical emitter, which is the U.S., is not taking strong steps toward reducing our emissions, then the rest of the world is not going to follow suit,” Frierson said. 

Reach reporter Soraya Marashi at Twitter: @sorayamarashi

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