The Trump Administration’s ‘Dishonest’ Attack on Fuel-Economy Standards
By John R. Platt
The Trump administration's plan to freeze fuel-economy standards is "the most spectacular regulatory flip-flop in history," said a retired EPA engineer who helped to develop new the standards under the Obama administration.
"These standards weren't going to be the ultimate solution for solving the climate problem, but they were a very, very important first step," said Jeff Alson, who retired this past April after a 40-year career at the EPA. "That's why this delay is so risky to us."
The Obama-era fuel-economy rules for cars and trucks—which former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced the Trump administration would "revise" this past April—would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 540 million metric tons and oil consumption by 1.2 billion barrels.
The previous rules were developed over a period of seven years by the EPA and the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Passed in 2010 and 2012, the standards required automakers to continuously increase their vehicles' fuel efficiency and decrease their emissions through the year 2025. Alson said the effort—which involved "hundreds of meetings"—resulted in a plan to effectively double fuel efficiency over that time period while allowing automakers to incrementally improve their technology.
Since 2012 the rules have saved drivers "tens of billions of dollars on fuel and cut hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions," according to a recent Union of Concerned Scientists blog post by retired General Motors engineer Greg Kempf.
The Trump plan, however, would put that savings on hold and flatline further fuel-economy improvements for six years. If passed, it would result in a 500,000 barrel-a-day increase of oil consumption in the United States, according to S&P Global Markets. The rules, according to the August 24 announcement in the Federal Register, are actually designed to increase fossil-fuel consumption, saying the country has increased oil production enough to reduce "the urgency of the U.S. to conserve energy."
By contrast, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the world must, among other actions, rapidly switch to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy if it hopes to avoid a climate-change catastrophe.
A Change in Plans
Although the automotive industry publicly supported the old standards, experts say they also advocated for slowing them down, as evidenced by a letter a trade group called the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers sent to President Trump shortly after his inauguration.
"The industry is more concerned with their quarterly profits than long-term greenhouse gas emissions," said John M. DeCicco, research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. "The Obama-era standards would have been a move in the right direction for the climate, but now we're regressing."
The Trump administration's freeze may appeal to corporate supporters, but they are not popular with the public. Alson testified at a public meeting about the plan last month and said "five or six of the 150 people attending supported some kind of rollback, some kind of weakening of the standards, but everybody else didn't."
More broadly, a recent survey by the Consumer Federation of America found that the public, regardless of political affiliation, overwhelmingly approves of both current fuel-economy standards and the previous plan to improve them.
That's no surprise, said DeCicco. "Such support has been consistently strong since the 1970s," he said. "Consumers instinctively know that stronger vehicle standards have been good for them in many ways."
Good for the Planet and the Bottom Line
"Making cars more fuel efficient not only reduces the carbon they emit but it reduces the amount of gasoline you got to buy," said Alson. "Every mile per gallon higher you have in your car, that's more money in your pocket." In fact, he said, fuel-economy standards typically save the average car owner twice money as much as they spend on the cost of fuel-efficient technology.
"I'd call it a free-lunch regulation," he said. "Economists don't like the concept of free lunch, but if these standards force new technological innovation and automakers bring it to market, consumers are actually going to save more on gasoline in the long run than they're spending on the technology."
Interestingly, Alson said the Trump administration's move is actually proving unpopular with automakers themselves. "The automakers are nervous right now," he said. "They wanted a little bit of relief, a little bit of flexibility, but they had no idea that the libertarian ideologues within this administration were going to go for an eight-year rollback. This has actually surprised the automakers and Ford came to the hearing I attended and said were opposed to this rollback, and Honda has also said that publicly."
That's in part because the industry always has a multiyear plan for developing and implementing new technologies. "They make decisions today about the billions of dollars they're going to be spending on new technology over the next five or 10 years," he said. The Trump administration's announcement has thrown a monkey wrench into those carefully established plans.
Unfortunately, those plans actually involve selling more trucks and SUVs instead of lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles, which are less profitable. DeCicco points out that recent emission gains from sales of electric vehicles have been "more than offset" by the increased sales in small trucks and SUVs. He said while consumers do recognize the need for fuel-efficiency standards, "they want bigger cars, and that's what the companies are offering."
Still, the tide toward electric vehicles continues to slowly rise around the world, and activist Bill McKibben said that puts the Trump administration effectively "alone" in wanting the new standards. "Even the auto industry realizes they don't really want to go back to the bad old days, and most Americans perceive, if dimly, that their next car or the one after that is going to be electric," he said. "At the very least they understand that we're handing the future of a key industry to the Chinese and the German manufacturers with Trump's idiocy."
So what happens next? Alson has a prediction: If the Trump administration successfully freezes standards, even for a short time, "there're going to be lawsuits, no question," he said.
That eventuality seems especially likely given the circumstances behind the freeze. The EPA itself did not participate in the efforts to roll back the regulations, the details for which instead came from the Department of Transportation. Alson said he and other experts from the EPA were not even allowed to consult on the changes.
"For 18 months, they refused to have a single technical working meeting, and from a process standpoint that's just indefensible," he said. "The taxpayers were paying people like me to use my expertise, and the Department of Transportation—which doesn't even have a lab that can test for fuel economy or greenhouse gas emissions—said 'we are doing it our own way.' That's the most dishonest technical analysis I've seen in my 40 years. They basically cooked the books."
And in the process, experts warn, they might be helping to cook the planet.
The EPA plans to finalize its new rules by March 2019. No further public hearings on the matter are planned, and the public comment period ends October 26.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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