In the face of obvious danger, the human instinct is to react. When a rhino is charging, we don't just stand there.
But for decades, scientists have been warning that global warming from unchecked carbon emissions is a real and present danger for our society and the future of the planet. And we've just been standing there.
Maybe that's starting to change. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a plan to cut power-plant carbon pollution by 30 percent nationwide by 2030. This is a huge deal -- power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. Yet they face no federal limits on carbon, even though they have limits for soot, smog and other dangerous air pollution. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency has the power to propose and complete rules to regulate carbon pollution.
The recently released National Climate Assessment -- a detailed look at how climate change is affecting the United States right now -- makes it clear that this isn't the only action we need. According to the assessment, if we don't cut carbon pollution, heavy precipitation will become increasingly common in the Northeast. Heavier rainfall and higher seas will exacerbate the damage from storms like Sandy, which caused $60 billion to $80 billion worth of damage and was directly responsible for 72 lives lost -- 48 in New York.
Our state is a leader on climate issues in many ways. New York is already cutting carbon pollution, according to research my organization did for its recent report "Moving America Forward." A suite of clean energy policies -- including state renewable and efficiency standards and federal clean-car standards -- had the same carbon-pollution cutting effects in New York State in 2012 as getting 958,333 cars off the road.
In the past, when bold action has been in front of us, the fossil fuel industry has lobbied hard to stop the progress. Consider when the House of Representatives passed a national climate bill nearly five years ago, only to have it die in the Senate after intense lobbying. The EPA's proposed changes are likely to inspire similar industry opposition -- but there's reason to believe the outcome might be better.
First, public awareness of climate change is growing. Reports like the National Climate Assessment make clear the effects of climate change that farmers, first responders and flood insurers have seen firsthand. In a recent nationally representative survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, a majority of respondents -- 59 percent -- said extreme weather where they lived had been worse in recent years. Similarly, 56 percent saw the connection between global warming and severe weather.
Second, clean energy is no longer just a promise; it's a major economic force. Wind now generates enough electricity to power 15 million American homes, and the solar industry employs 150,000 Americans. The amount of electricity generated from wind and solar energy increased fourfold from 2007 to 2012. It's now clearer than ever to policy-makers and the public that, with the viable alternatives to dirty energy we now have, we can clean up our power while keeping the lights on.
The EPA's action to limit carbon could be a big launchpad for an even bigger effort to reduce the carbon pollution fueling global warming. Now it's up to our leaders, including New York's Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, to make our actions as bold as possible. The rhino is charging. It is time to act.
Heather Leibowitz is the director of Environment New York, a statewide citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.