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U.S. must win ‘war on coal’

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s opponents have derisively called his plans announced last month to combat climate change a "war on coal." It won’t be clear for months or years if that’s true, but Americans should sincerely hope that it is.

Obama’s strategy is limited by the need to bypass a do-nothing Congress, but it is a sweeping one. It includes a slew of small measures — such as increasing the gas mileage of heavy trucks and the energy efficiency of appliances and encouraging the development and use of renewable energy — that cumulatively will make a big difference in the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

Its centerpiece, however, is Obama’s order to the Environmental Protection Agency to take the single most important step in the fight against global warming: Set limits on the amount of heat-trapping carbon that coal-fired power plants are allowed to spew into the air.

The EPA has a year to produce a first draft of the rules. That’s when we’ll know whether the Obama administration is serious about launching this necessary war.

The U.S. has about 600 coal-fired plants, accounting for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions — the single largest source. Under the Clean Air Act, the government must reduce them.

Polluters and their advocates claim, as they always do, that Obama’s plan will destroy jobs and send energy prices soaring. They demonstrate a depressing lack of confidence in the ingenuity of American entrepreneurs, investors and workers.

Like most Silicon Valley business leaders, we’re confident that federal regulation will unleash a wave of energy innovation that ultimately saves Americans money on their power bills while cleaning up the air and slowing the rise of the oceans. That’s what’s been happening in California as it rolls out its cap-and-trade system.

The cost of doing nothing surely will far outweigh the cost of action. Hurricane Sandy alone is estimated to have cost the U.S. economy $65 billion. Responding to natural disasters will only grow more expensive as climate change intensifies storms, droughts, heat waves, floods and sea-level rise.

The Natural Resources Defence Council’s recent proposal for a state-based, flexible method of regulating power plants illustrates this point. It estimates the annual cost of its strategy at about $4 billion. But the annual savings would be $25 billion to $60 billion because of slower climate change and improved public health. The proposal could prevent 23,000 asthma attacks a year, among other health benefits.

"We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-Earth society," Obama said while announcing his plan. "Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm."

It was reassuring to see Obama take such a strong stand against climate change deniers.

And his plans for dealing with the effects of global warming — such as helping communities build in disaster-resistant ways and ensuring the strength of crucial infrastructure, like power plants and hospitals — will protect millions while acting as a reminder that the science of climate change is not speculative. It’s happening right now.

But the most important step of all is for the EPA’s rules governing carbon emissions from power plants to be robust — a true war on coal.

It’s a war the nation can, and must, win.

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