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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: A big step for health and biodiversity

David Yarnold

03 Jun 2014

We’ve known since 1990 that emissions from coal-fired power plants are harming both people and birds. Loons, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles have been getting a heaping serving of mercury with their fish from streams tainted by power plants. Songbirds take the hit in their nervous systems. Mercury and metal poisoning disrupt bird mating, breeding, and parenting, and impact the health of hundreds of bird species across the Americas.

Scientists have proven that warming trends driven by another type of pollution—greenhouse gas carbon pollution—have already disrupted bird migration patterns across the country. As a result of climate change, nearly 60 percent of the 305 species found in winter across North America have shifted their ranges northward by an average of 40 miles since 1966. These birds may soon find themselves fundamentally out of sync with the environment that sustains them.

Over the past few years the EPA has stepped forward with a thoughtful set of new rules tackling power plant emission issues, from mercury to arsenic. I know that the EPA isn’t wildly popular everywhere Audubon’s members live. But just as we know that we need local law enforcement, the EPA is the cop on the bird beat, and the agency plays an important role in the web of protections for people and wildlife.

The EPA has just released its first rule to clean up greenhouse gas pollution from existing coal-fired power plants. This rule is going to be furiously attacked as a “war on coal.” It’s not. It’s a pivot to a cleaner energy future that has to happen, sooner rather than later. Energy companies are crying doom. They also resisted regulations designed to heal the effects of acid rain on forests and lakes in the eastern half of the United States (caused by sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants), and chemical companies fought rules designed to stop them from burning a hole in the ozone layer. In both cases, the industries thrived and nature healed. But none of that would have happened without a clear focus on the environmental crises.

We’re at the same crossroads today. Limiting emissions from existing power plants is our best hope for slowing the effects of climate change and protecting America’s birds and global biodiversity. We need to let the EPA know where we stand.

Take a minute to look at your life list. Think about the songs you heard on your last bird walk. And take a look at the photos of your kids or grandkids. Then go to and join us in urging the EPA to take a stand on carbon pollution from existing power plants.

All those birds, your kids, your grandkids—they’re counting on you. Thanks for your consideration.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. This article appears in the July-August issue of Audubon magazine.

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