Time to Speak Up Against Carbon Pollution

Last Friday, over 230 citizens voiced their concerns at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listening session in Chicago about proposed carbon pollution standards for existing power plants. I was one of them. Although I'd much rather be behind a laptop than a microphone, I took the opportunity to speak before an imposing table of EPA administrators in favor of adopting strong carbon limits to protect our communities from climate change.

Among a sea of aqua "CLIMATE ACTION NOW" shirts, speakers overwhelmingly stood in support of the power plant standards, three to one. Nearby at the Federal Plaza, 500 enthusiastic supporters came together to cheer on the Climate Rally. People are standing up for good reason.

About eight years ago, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and work to advance climate solutions. I'm not a climate scientist, an environmental attorney, a clean energy developer, a legislator or a photojournalist documenting glacier loss -- although I have met with all of these experts to better understand the challenges we face. Mostly, I'm a mother of four, worried about the world our kids will inherit with climate change unchecked. I've joined up with NRDC, Sierra Club, 350.org and many others to fight against carbon pollution and promote clean energy. Many others, apparently, are too.

We can't help but notice the consequences of our warming planet. Here in Illinois, our whiplash weather has swung from unrelenting superstorms to the worst ever Midwest drought in the past three years. In 2011, an epic seven-inch downpour caused 25 percent of the homes to flood in my town of Winnetka, including our own. Again this past spring, flash flooding returned. We are feeling the pain of more frequent severe weather, from health impacts to economic loss. In 2012 alone, storms, floods, droughts and forest fires cost American taxpayers a whopping $96 BILLION. This doesn't begin to account for the destruction around the world. Sadly, Super Typhoon Haiyan -- one of the strongest storms ever recorded on the planet -- was slamming into the Philippines as we were testifying at the EPA. The heartbreaking images we've seen in the media this week punctuate why we must act responsibly. Climate change is intensifying storms such as Haiyan, Sandy and Katrina. Like it or not, the carbon we create in the U.S. is contributing to calamities here and around the world.

Fortunately, President Obama has vowed to take on climate change. In his historic June speech, he announced gamechanging efforts to substantially scale back greenhouse gases. Under his administration, the EPA nearly doubled the average fuel economy standards of new cars and trucks by 2025. Now the EPA needs to swiftly adopt strict carbon dioxide limits on power plants. Power plants are the single biggest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., accounting for 40 percent of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. Without standards they are free to spew unlimited amounts into the atmosphere. We need to change this and the law, science and public opinion are on our side.

Not everyone is with us, of course. Opposition at the EPA session, largely by the coal industry, was framed around protecting jobs. While historically coal has been king in the Midwest, its dominance is fading in part because coal is no longer cheap. My town is locked into using coal-fired power from the Prairie State plant, which has been charging communities the highest rates in the state, up to 25 percent more. This dirty energy source is problematic throughout its entire lifecycle -- from mining to burning to ash disposal. The burdensome costs of coal pollution are offloaded onto society, and ultimately, our kids.

It doesn't have to be this way. We have reliable alternatives in renewable energy and energy efficiency that don't harm our health or the planet. The energy marketplace is shifting and, as a result, a thriving clean energy industry has become an important job creator and economic driver in Illinois. Chicago truly is a windy city, being home to 13 corporate headquarters of major wind power companies. According to ELPC, more than 300 companies are part of the wind, solar and geothermal supply chains in Illinois, employing an estimated 18,000 people. This doesn't include thousands more related jobs such as my brother's cleantech position at Argonne Lab, the energy efficiency specialist that audited my church, my friend's LEED architect and so on. Soaring interest in sustainability and cleantech innovation across business sectors and college campuses signals the future of jobs. Let's keep nurturing our clean energy economy!

With national standards, we can eliminate a third of our carbon pollution from coal plants. This is a BIG DEAL and a real chance to achieve critical climate goals. 12-year-old Rachel Salman, who also gave testimony to the EPA, perfectly summed up why we need to seize this opportunity, "I think this carbon standard will help protect the future that my generation is counting on."

The EPA is listening. Let's send a clear message! Written input can be sent here. I plan to follow up with a letter including a note from my kids. I hope you will too.