By an electoral vote margin of 332 to 206, the American people voted to maintain the regulation of mercury emissions produced by power plants for an additional four years. The production of ambient mercury by burning fossil fuels poses neurotoxic threats to the people and animals living in proximity to power plants. Mercury poisoning impairs the nervous system, initially resulting in tremors in the limbs and loss of feeling, taste, vision, hearing, and speech. Because mercury accumulates in an affected individual’s tissues over time, poisoning becomes worse over time. Acute cases of poisoning lead to paralysis and death. Mercury exposure to fetuses and young children has particularly serious consequences to neurological development.
The regulation, a result of rules enacted by President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency starting in December of 2011, has already led to the closing of several of the United States’ dirtiest, most antiquated power plants, including ones in the city of Chicago that were the subject of years of protest by affected residents.
The American people also voted to maintain legislative inaction on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Returning a Republican majority to the House of Representatives, as well as sending back to the Senate enough Republicans and Democrats (many from carbon-rich states) who support increased greenhouse gas emissions, prevents the legislative creation of carbon cap-and-trade markets, carbon taxes, or other permanent responses to the problem of human-induced climate change and the volatile weather patterns scientists warn come with warming the atmosphere. This, despite the second “storm of the century” to hit the Atlantic seaboard in two years.
The decisions by the American electorate ensure the only action on climate change from the federal government in the next 26 months will come in the form of executive orders that may be reversed once President Obama leaves office in January of 2017. It is likely that the most significant federal actions against greenhouse gases in American history by that date will remain the raising of fuel-efficiency standards as part of the 2009 automobile industry bailout, and the residual effects on carbon by the shuttering of coal-fired power plants due to the mercury emission rules. Current federal policy on climate change is unlikely to reduce the consequences of continued global warming, leaving major policy innovations to municipalities, including New York City.