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Senate Letter on Climate Legislation

September X, 2009

Dear Senator,

As medical and public health professionals from across the United States, we are deeply concerned about the serious consequences for human health posed by climate change.  Already we are seeing the symptoms of climate change in the form of more frequent and intense heat waves, worsening air quality, pest and water borne diseases and extreme weather events. Moreover, climate change threatens food and water supplies posing grave threats to human health and well-being. Scientific consensus is that in order to mitigate climate change, we must act quickly and definitively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) levels in the atmosphere at or below 350ppm.  We are writing to urge you to pass climate change and energy legislation that supports solutions to reduce greenhouse gases with the most cost-effective, cleanest, and fastest approaches.  New coal-fired power plants and new nuclear reactors do not meet those criteria. 

Because the imminent threat of global warming poses challenges to human health, Physicians for Social Responsibility urges you to support four cornerstone principles in the development of national climate policy.

1.  U.S. climate legislation must make strong, early cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

In order to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, the United States must achieve deep, long-term reductions in its emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Failure to do so would risk subjecting our planet to damaging, even catastrophic global warming and endanger the lives of all its inhabitants. 

Climate policy passed by the House of Representatives in June would start the United States on a path to reducing carbon emissions.  It establishes reductions of 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, with an intermediate target of 42 percent reduction by 2030. While this represents a step in the right direction, the science clearly indicates that deeper and earlier cuts are needed.  Some analysts warn that currently proposed legislation is unlikely to lead to any emissions reductions at all until after 2018.  PSR calls for robust action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, starting immediately and requiring a substantial reduction by 2020. Significant and timely emission cuts are crucial to assure that emissions peak by 2015 and decline rapidly thereafter to return atmospheric CO2eq concentrations to 350 ppm, the safe, upper limit that provides a greater than 90% probability of staying within 2°C of preindustrial global average temperatures.
2.  U.S. climate legislation must preserve the US Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. 

Proposed climate policy passed by the House of Representatives would remove the US Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act (CAA).  This deprives the nation of a dedicated, reliable and effective federal entity to monitor and enforce the limits placed on global warming emissions. Regulation of air pollutants under the CAA has historically acted as a significant technology driver.  Without the pressure to push for new technology (to avoid violating the CAA), industry will likely invest less in anti-pollution technologies, leaving us unlikely to meet targets for CO2 reduction.

The CAA has proven effective in reducing air pollution and improving health and welfare in cost-effective ways. Its programs have reduced a wide variety of air pollutants, from nitrous oxides to volatile organic compounds, and have done so across a wide variety of sources.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already has the authority under the CAA to regulate air pollutants, including CO2. Its power to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act should be restored in full.

3.  U.S. climate legislation must end dependence on coal for electrical generation.

Coal combustion today generates roughly half of the nation’s electricity.  That power comes at an unacceptable cost.  First, it is the source of approximately a third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.  That in itself is reason enough to shift U.S. energy generation to a non-carbon-based source.  Yet there is another reason why the nation should move away from coal:  Coal combustion creates an unacceptable burden of toxic emissions.  The deadly pollutants emitted by coal include but are not limited to mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter.  These pollutants cause severe damage to the human cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and nervous system, provoking heart attacks, asthma, respiratory diseases and cancer.  As many as 24,000 adults die prematurely each year due to particulate matter pollution alone.

For all of those reasons, PSR opposes all subsidies that would further the nation’s continued reliance on coal-fired power plants.  This includes subsidies for the extraction and combustion of coal and for the research, development and implementation of carbon capture and sequestration.  PSR supports an immediate moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired power plants, with development by DOE of a national plan to phase out coal.  Finally, we call for bringing all existing (as well as proposed) coal plants under stringent regulation for toxic emissions, including CO2, using New Source Performance Standards.

4.  U.S. climate legislation must not provide unlimited loan guarantees or additional subsidies for the construction of new nuclear reactors.
New nuclear reactors are extremely expensive and risky investments.  Electricity produced by new reactors would cost two to three times more than renewable energy and efficiency measures.  The nuclear industry is asking for over $100 billion in loan guarantees.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the likelihood that a project to build a new reactor will default is over 50 percent.

Nuclear energy is also polluting. Uranium miners experience higher rates of lung cancer, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases. In addition, nuclear reactors create enormous quantities of radioactive waste each year.  More than 58,000 metric tons of spent fuel has already accumulated at reactor sites around the U.S., for which there is currently no permanent solution.  Reprocessing is not a viable solution: it is polluting and a public health threat, a proliferation risk, and extremely expensive. 

Nuclear reactors also require large quantities of water for cooling. During droughts, which are expected to become more frequent and intense due to global warming, nuclear reactors are forced to reduce output or even shut down. Reactors may need to discharge hotter water during heat waves, which can be harmful to river ecosystems. During the heat wave of 2003, 17 French reactors were forced to power down or shut down completely as river water temperatures rose. 

Finally, nuclear reactors are slow to deploy.  A new reactor would take approximately 10 years to construct – much longer than efficiency and renewable projects, which can be deployed in months or a couple of years.

When we treat a sick patient, we provide that patient with the best available, scientifically indicated treatment.  We must do no less in responding to the Earth’s changing climate.  The task of dealing with climate change is formidable, but we must respond decisively and we must not delay:  The cost of inaction is far greater.  Only sound investments in economical, expedient, and truly green technologies will allow us to avert the pending public health crisis.  Given the immediacy of the climate crisis we face, we should not waste our limited resources to subsidize new nuclear reactors or new coal-fired plants, which are expensive, slow to construct, and polluting. Investing in carbon-free, non-polluting renewable energies is a safer, cleaner and faster way of addressing the climate crisis.


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