The logic behind the comment from Christiana Figueres, the U.N. climate chief, is that older, dirtier forms of energy are likely the first to be eliminated under a deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so would improve public health by reducing air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which contribute to heart and respiratory ailments, in addition to slashing heat-trapping carbon emissions, which most scientists say cause global warming.
“Seen in this light, the climate agreement is actually a public health agreement," Figueres said of next year's U.N.-hosted talks in Paris, according to Responding to Climate Change. The meeting is viewed as a last-ditch effort to secure enough carbon-cutting commitments by 2020 to avoid a 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise by 2100.
Conservatives and industry groups take issue with that argument — carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for warming the planet according to scientists, doesn't pose the public health risks of other air pollutants.
Still, the Obama administration has made arguments similar to Figueres' about its proposed emissions rule for existing power plants.
While designed as a policy to mitigate climate change — the Environmental Protection Agency wants a 30-percent reduction below 2005 levels for power-sector carbon emissions by 2030 — the White House and supportive Democrats have taken to describing it in terms of health gains, partially as a way to broaden the rule's appeal.
The EPA says that up to $62 billion of the potential $93 billion of benefits when the proposal is fully implemented in 2030 would come from reduced medical and other health-related expenses.
But opponents have said the EPA's math is fuzzy. They say the agency is understating the costs of implementing carbon-reduction rules, as business groups, Republicans and centrist Democrats say the regulation would raise energy costs and restrain U.S. economic competitiveness.