Editor's note: Director and actor Robert Redford is a trustee at Natural Resources Defense Council. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- I've been in Georgia for the last few weeks, where I'm filming a movie about two out-of-shape geezers who take on the long walk of the Appalachian Trial -- the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smokies, Cumberlands, and the Shenandoah Valley. It's possible to wander huge stretches of this great American wilderness and never see a sign that the 2,100-mile trail runs through the heart of coal country.
For a century, the people who live alongside the Appalachian Trail have built their lives around where there was coal, because where there was coal there was work. Dirty, dangerous, terribly difficult work -- but work.
Now, this too is changing, and coal, inevitably, is going away -- and with it, the only way of life these hardworking people have ever known. It's a wrenching change. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in West Virginia. Today there are just 23,000. Coal reserves are shrinking, mechanization means fewer jobs per ton, production is shifting to cheaper areas, and low-cost supplies of unconventional natural gas are pricing coal out of the electric power market.
At the same time, a preponderance of scientific evidence makes clear that climate change caused by fossil fuel pollution is already having tremendous impact on the world around us. It's making our oceans rise, putting our food supplies at risk, increasing the chances of extreme weather, and contributing to political instability in nations around the world.
However, we know how to fix the problem. We can avoid the most destructive impacts of climate change -- but only if we move quickly to convert to energy supplies dominated by clean power.
Here's a way to start that work: The Obama administration will propose the first limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired plants, which on their own create roughly 40% of the nation's total carbon emissions. A recent analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I serve as a board member) found that putting these rules in place would be the equivalent of removing up to 130 million cars from our roads. At the same time, this approach would yield as much as $63 billion in health, air quality and clean water benefits -- numbers that far outweigh the costs of putting limits on carbon pollution.
That's why these new rules are a big deal -- the biggest step our country has ever taken on curbing carbon pollution. Demonstrating that kind of leadership could mark an important turning point in the global climate effort.
And so, right now, we must choose between two paths.
One path brings opportunities for more innovation. New technologies can clean up our skies, create jobs here and actions abroad. This path harnesses American wind, solar, geothermal and energy efficiency to begin eliminating our reliance on foreign energy supplies. And it helps ensure our children and grandchildren avoid a dangerous battle with rising seas, scorched farmlands and more dangerous storms as climate change bears down further in the coming decades.
Or there's the other path -- the one we've taken for the past century -- which sustains an ever-dirtier status quo. It's a path that reduces the beautiful mountains of Appalachia to rubble for the black rocks that all but guarantee climate chaos for future generations. It mandates a future reliant on exporting that coal and darkening the skies around the world, while leaving opportunities for innovation to other countries more willing and able to embrace positive change. And it's one where ever fewer workers are hired for dangerous jobs that put them at physical risk, threatening their health and burdening their local communities with pollution.
Nevertheless, the apprehension in coal country to leave this current path is understandable. We would all feel it if we were in their shoes. Outsiders can't ignore the plight of the families and the affected communities, and we have an obligation to ensure that they have a strong economic bridge to a sustainable, clean energy future.
That must be central to the broader effort to cut power plant pollution, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency will give each state the ability to create its own approach to cutting pollution, rightfully recognizing the need to be flexible for coal states. After all, as past efforts to clean up pollution have shown us, this effort will only succeed if we all work together.
Over the past 40 years, we have recognized the health threats and costs of pollution and put in place a range of commonsense limits on power-plant pollutants like lead, mercury and arsenic. Now it's time to put the same kind of limits on the dangerous carbon pollution and create safer and better jobs for our energy workers in the process.
Tell your elected officials and the EPA that you support the new carbon pollution regulations -- and demand clean energy, now. It's time to move to the cleaner path.
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