There's no time to delay action on climate change

A plume of exhaust shown in 2013 extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant located 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and e-mail.

(CNN)We know what's required to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, including super droughts, mass extinctions and underwater coastal cities: We need to ditch fossil fuels by 2050.

That may sound like a distant target, but think about what a world without fossil fuels would look like: No coal, no natural gas, no oil. Or very little of these things, which now are staples of the global economy (even if a salmon is worth more than a barrel of oil these days). Mid-century is only 34 years away, which is one Beyonce-in-2016-sized lifetime from now. That's enough time for enormous transformation and progress to take place (witness: Beyonce) but not enough that we can let ourselves doddle in the dirty-energy status quo.
The urgency of the climate crisis is exactly why this week's news that the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked a key climate change rule is so disheartening. At question is the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which aims to significantly reduce pollution from power plants, especially those burning coal. SCOTUS voted 5-4 to stop the plan from being implemented until lower courts have time to review legal challenges to the policy. In other words: They stalled its implementation at a time when every month truly matters for our global march to a zero-greenhouse-gas-emission future. That doesn't mean the plan will die. Lower courts will move the issue forward as soon as June. (This all started by the way because a number of short-sighted states sued over the implementation of the plan). But it certainly does take wind out of the sails of U.S. climate change efforts.
    And all of this is to say nothing about what could happen to the plan if a climate-skepic Republican is elected as president in November.
    Climate activists have been quick to say the SCOTUS decision is only a bump in the road, and that the transition to cleaner fuel sources, like wind and solar, is irrevocable. But blocking the Clean Power Plan would send a massive symbolic blow to the world's efforts to cut emissions and meet international targets for fighting global warming. In December, nearly 200 countries agreed to a U.N.-led plan to hold warming "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, which is measured as a temperature increase since the Industrial Revolution. To do that, the world has to get to zero net carbon emissions sometime between about 2050 and 2080. One key reason the Paris Agreement succeeded where many others failed is that the world's two biggest polluters -- China and the United States -- both proposed ambitious pollution cuts.
    "What the United States brought to the table to get China on board is the commitment to domestic action through the Clean Power Plan," said Anthony Hobley, CEO of Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London-based financial think tank that analyzes climate action.
    "The rest of the world will be watching," he said.
    All climate change policies should be judged on how quickly they help the world get to zero net carbon emissions, and avoid 2 degrees Celsius of warming.
    The Clean Power Plan is far from a panacea, but it is essential to these international goals. Without this policy, it would become "virtually impossible for the U.S. to catch up and achieve reductions consistent with the objective agreed in Paris of holding warming well below 2 degrees Celsius," said Marcia Rocha, project leader of the Climate Action Tracker, which measures the efficacy of plans to combat climate change. "Not implementing the Clean Power Plan," she said in an email, "would set the U.S. emissions to rise until 2025 (and 2030) and hence in the opposite direction of where they need to be heading."
    I do agree with climate-action advocates and economists who say the shift away from coal is happening regardless of policies like the Clean Power Plan. There's always hope. Saying, as Wired did in a headline on Wednesday, that the Supreme Court "may have nuked" the Paris climate deal is hyperbolic. For one, the court decision is not yet final. And another: More than two dozen coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the last three years, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative. That happened in part because of existing clean-air regulations, but moreover because of the cheap price of natural gas, which is out-competing coal.
    The trend line is only moving one way -- away from coal and toward cleaner energy. But we must move as quickly as possible, and, absent a price on carbon pollution, the Clean Power Plan helps America do that. It helps us avoid the worst of climate change, supports clean energy economies also promotes public heath. (Air pollution kills more than 3 million people worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization.) World leaders get this. So does the Obama administration. So do citizens of the United States. "Majorities of the public in 23 of the 27 states suing the EPA (over the Clean Power Plan) actually support setting strict carbon dioxide emission limits on coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health," according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
    If only those states would listen to the science and their citizens.
    It's in their interest -- all of ours -- to speed our way toward a cleaner, safer future.