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Climate Game Changer

June 3rd, 2014

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A lot of people, including leaders from other countries, were anxiously waiting this week to see what decision President Obama would make about the environment — specifically about “carbon emissions”.

And it turns out he made a historic decision.

First, what’s a carbon emission? 

Carbon emissions happen when coal is taken from the earth and is used to make electricity (and many steel products). That electricity powers homes, businesses, and industries.

In the process, though, it sends a by-product — carbon dioxide — into our air and pollutes it.

Coal is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions , according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) . Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and make the planet warmer — global warming.

Power plants account for nearly 40% of carbon emissions in the U.S. — more than the emissions of every car, truck and plane in the U.S., combined , according to the Union for Concerned Scientists  (UCS).

And there aren’t any rules at the moment to limit the carbon emissions, according to the UCS.

Coal, by the way, is a non-renewable source of energy. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. So even though there are huge amounts of it, it’s a good idea to have alternatives.

Source: National Energy Education (public domain)

If coal is so bad, why are we still using it?

We’ve been using coal for a long time and the U.S. has enormous amounts of it. And it’s relatively inexpensive because of that. Efforts and advances have also been made to process coal more cleanly.

States with the most coal say their economy, businesses, and people’s jobs depend on it. Kentucky, for example, says about 95% of its state relies on coal, and that they’d be in deep trouble without it.

Others argue that while it may be inexpensive in the short run, the real price tag is too high in the long term — the cost to the environment, our lives, and the future of the planet. And that we’re already feeling it.

One of the nation’s leading environmentalists, Bill McKibben , says, “If it’s wrong the wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

Right now, between 40% – 50% of the U.S.’s electricity comes from coal, according to the EPA .

Wind generators and solar panels. Photo credit:

What are the options?

There are alternatives to coal.

There’s nuclear , which President Obama likes and is considered much cleaner. But radioactive waste is a by-product, which is contained during processing (unlike carbon), but there are still serious risks.

Other sources include wind and solar energy, both of which are being used, and are renewable , but have a ways to go before they can be used on a huge scale, be affordable, and be reliable (Cloudy day? No solar power).

About 12% of the U.S.’s energy currently comes from renewable resources.

Back to the President. What did he decide?

On the one hand, he says he’s passionate about the environment and takes climate change and global warming seriously — so much so that he made that part of his election campaign.

On the other hand, it’s also the president’s job to make sure the economy is strong and people can afford to live and have jobs. Those in favor of coal, including many Republicans , say that moving away from coal will make people lose jobs and make life too expensive, especially for business owners.

Others say that’s not true. Still others say that it’s not necessarily one or the other. But it is a big fight. And the President announced his decision without Congress’s backing , which ruffled some feathers.

So, what President Obama proposed is a regulation that would cut carbon emissions by 30% by the year 2030 (within 16 years, how old will you be then?).

Environmentalists applauded his announcement.

Will this be enough?

It’s huge and historic on the one hand, but will only make a little dent on the other. But it is one of the biggest steps by any  U.S. president ever on climate change.

Part of the president’s plan that surprised many though is that he is largely leaving it up to individual states for how to achieve those reduced emissions standards .  “I’ve never seen anything like this, where states get this much flexibility. It’s astounding,” said Dallas Burtraw, an expert on electricity markets with Resources for the Future, a Washington research group, reported in The New York Times .

Some states have already vowed to fight it or defy it. In Wyoming, even before the proposed regulation and where coal is big, they’re refusing to teach climate change in science class and coal’s role in it.

Marguerite Herman, a member of Wyoming for Science Education said in  The New York Times , “We acknowledge and appreciate the revenue that has been raised and that runs this state from oil and gas extraction and from the coal mining, and it is a fact that our schools are well funded because of it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change a scientific fact.”

While the powers that be sort it all out … one thing we can all do to help? Turn off the lights when we leave a room.

For more tips on the difference we can all make, click here for Kids Discover’s Inforgraphic on “10 Things Kids Can Do To Help The Earth.” (It’s great but you may need to the help of an adult with this).

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