August 28, 2012

I love the smell of solutions in the morning!

The Obama Administration finalized fuel economy standards today that raise average passenger vehicle efficiency to 54.5 mpg by 2025.  It’s a proud day – a huge achievement, grown from decades of relentless advocacy.  The White House release is here.

It’s been a long haul.  Campaigns were not enough.  Winning lawsuits wasn’t enough.  Ultimately, we had to buy the auto industry with a federal bailout before we were able to do the right, necessary, and obvious thing:  double fuel economy standards.  But hey, extreme measures  were warranted!

President Obama:   “These fuel standards represent the single most important step we’ve ever taken to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  This historic agreement builds on the progress we’ve already made to save families money at the pump and cut our oil consumption. By the middle of the next decade our cars will get nearly 55 miles per gallon, almost double what they get today. It’ll strengthen our nation’s energy security, it’s good for middle class families and it will help create an economy built to last.”

It’s all true.  And it’s all so good.

Want to just party?  Stop here.  Need to kvetch?  Read below.


If I were a better person, I would leave it at that.  But the road to this point was long, winding, and full of potholes.  Some of us celebrate better when we can vent.  And since I have vented so comprehensively on this subject over the years, I’ll just recycle this column from October of 2009:

Clean Slate

What’s good for GM, revisited

OK, so maybe I got a little carried away.

Like when I called General Motors a “staggering Hummosaurus,” arguing that any federal bailout was both wrong and doomed unless it included a commitment to quickly double fuel economy.  Or when I accused the company of commercial suicide, because I couldn’t think of any other explanation for their aggressively inferior product quality.

I may have gotten a little too exercised, but GM asked for it.  They fought against stronger fuel economy and emissions standards tooth and nail.  They screwed their workers and the planet with a business strategy based on convincing us that real men drive tanks.  They dragged America into the economic and geopolitical quagmire of fossil fuel dependence.  They contributed lavishly to campaigns denying the science behind climate change, costing us twenty years worth of solutions and pushing us to the brink of crisis.  Then they crawled (in private jets!) to Congress for a public bailout, while continuing to prosecute lawsuits against state Clean Car standards.

So I come by my animosity to GM honestly.  I didn’t regret a word of what I said.  Until I heard this:

Chuck Todd, chief political analyst for MSNBC – an oracle for political junkies – was speaking to a ballroom full of them in Seattle earlier this month.  Todd talked about politics the way Bob Costas talks about sports – with lots of statistics and strategic insight and colorful metaphors.  He called the news like a game.  Engaging.  Fun. Clever.

…fun, that is, until he talked about the continuing crisis of confidence in government – the doubt so many of us share about whether government can deliver big solutions to big problems.  And then he dropped a bomb: He said the watershed for faith in government – the acid test of whether our public institutions deserve our trust or our scorn – is whether GM pulls out of bankruptcy and becomes profitable again after the bailout.

If I were Redd Foxx, I would have said “This is the big one!  I’m comin’ Elizabeth!”  Our confidence in public institutions – and any hope we might have of real solutions to the big problems that require collective action – depended on GM’s business acumen?  Our only prayer is to restore faith in democracy one crappy Aveo and bloated Escalade at a time?

For those of us who have spent much of our lives fighting this company’s ruthlessly ecocidal rampage, this was a cruel, sick joke.  Talk about your karma running over your dogma.

But even for those who don’t carry this chip on their shoulder, the prospect of the future of democracy riding on GM’s business savvy should be petrifying.  This is a company whose private management drove the stock price from nearly $100 to a buck and change.  While their Japanese competitors were innovating and inventing and engineering, they were litigating and stonewalling and marketing junk. It’s hard to imagine how the company could have done more to undermine its own competitiveness, or that it can overcome a culture of mediocrity that took decades to build.  And now Todd says the success of this basket case is our only hope.

But I get what Todd meant.  He figures that we figure it like this:   Bailing out GM was a pretty dubious deal.  The company reaped what it sowed, and we’re expected to throw our money down the rat hole they dug?  But there you have it, that’s exactly what we did, and now that there’s no turning back, it better damned well work.

Of all the bailouts, GM is the one we’re most likely to identify with.  Wall Street is more abstract and unsympathetic.  Who really knows what Morgan Stanley does or cares whether they go down?  But with GM, there’s a lot of people’s livelihoods on the line — real people who make stuff.  And despite all the garbage that has rolled off their lines, their brands are emblazoned on the national psyche.  Don’t you wonder what she does there in the back of her pink Cadillac, her paaank Cadillaaac?  How we gonna get to the levy without the Chevy?

Alright, alright, I can get with the program.  In fact, I’m way ahead of the curve.  Before I heard Todd’s speech – on the last day of the Cash for Clunkers program – I went out and bought me a 76 Chevy ¾ ton pickup.  Bicentennial vintage – the year I got my driver’s license.  Rescuing a clunker (even though it wasn’t eligible) seemed like a nice way to shake my fist at the insanity of it all – spending billions of tax dollars to get tiny improvements in fuel efficiency by scrapping cars that never should have been built and bribing people to buy new, barely more efficient ones. (This is like pumping Red Bull into the economy to promote recovery:  nice little jolt but not much nutrition there.)

Yes, I know, buying a 33 year old truck won’t keep jobs in Detroit.  But you should see this baby – gold and white, with those sweet iridescent gold Chevy insignias on the grill and hubcaps and steering wheel.  I won’t drive it much, but just owning it certifies my commitment to restoring faith in democracy and public institutions.  And, to certify my determination to leave a recognizable planet to my kids, I’ll leave it parked after I get the wood in.

Yale says it’s okay: talk about climate.

August 15, 2012

As I have harangued, it’s wrong and self-defeating to back down from talking about climate.  Political candidates and leaders need to level with us.   Climate advocates should be explicit about it, even when the wind is blowing right in our face.

And oh, BTW, it isn’t.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has just published The Political Benefits of Taking a Pro-Climate Stand, which finds:

  • A majority of all registered voters (55 percent) say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote.
  • Among these climate change issue voters, large majorities believe global warming is happening and support action by the U.S. to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
  • Independents lean toward “climate action” and look more like Democrats than Republicans on the issue.
  • A pro-climate action position wins votes among Democrats and Independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.
  • Policies to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels and promote renewable energy are favored by a majority of registered voters across party lines.

You don’t need political permission to talk about a crisis.

But just in case, the full study is here.


Senate to Europe: Get your laws off our carbon

August 1, 2012

In a memorable TV ad saluting the hard work of Olympic athletes, swimmer Ryan Lochte reveals how he made it to the Games in London:  “I swam here.”

That would be one way to avoid the modest cost of carbon pollution permits required for aviation under the EU’s Emission Trading System.

Senator John Thune has a less strenuous approach:  ban U.S. airlines from participating in the system. His European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act (S. 1956), passed by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, would authorize the Secretary of Transportation to do just that.

Now, it’s one thing to stand on the sidelines of the global campaign for climate solutions with your arms folded, as our federal government has mostly done for the last 15 years.  It’s another thing to throw tomatoes at the players.  That’s pretty much what S. 1956 is about.

The EU wisely decided to include aviation – one of the fastest growing carbon emission sources – in its ETS.  The system limits dangerous carbon pollution and requires large emitters to have permits for the amount they produce.  The number of permits declines over time – as carbon emissions must.  Air travel is conspicuous carbon consumption; exempting it would be a bit like allowing Ferraris to ignore speed limits.

The cost of these permits would amount to about $6 for a round-trip flight from Washington D.C. to Copenhagen.  The ticket for that same flight on United this last April would have included a “fuel surcharge” of $496, according to testimony submitted by Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund in answer to questions posed by Senator Maria Cantwell.    (Annie’s testimony is here.)

Since the emission limits incentivize cost-effective efficiency improvements in aviation, they reduce the risk of these large fuel surcharges.  But increasing Americans’ exposure to the growing costs of oil dependence is apparently not too high a price to pay for the Senate to flip the bird at Europe’s climate policy.  This is particularly ironic/obnoxious, since the premier U.S. commercial airplane manufacturer, Boeing, is committed to leading the industry in efficient aviation technology and lower carbon fuels.

Senators Kerry and Boxer salvaged a little something out of this exercise in international nose-thumbing, adding an amendment that would require U.S. negotiators to achieve a global approach to reducing airline emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organization.

As Senator Kerry put it, S. 1956 amounts to “authorizing through legislation the ability for U.S. companies to break the law of another country.”   Not content to make America an international scofflaw and climate heckler, the bill would direct the Secretary of Transportation to hold U.S. airlines harmless for any penalties associated with their non-compliance.  The airlines, of course, wouldn’t have it any other way.  That could put U.S. taxpayers on the hook for about $22 billion by 2020, according to EDF.   (You’d think that for that kind of money, someone would have offered an amendment requiring the airlines to offer some decent food and a little legroom.)

So rather than pay $6 for emission permits on a round-trip flight to Europe – under a program that would promote efficiency and reduce fuel costs – U.S. taxpayers would just pay airline companies’ fines for failure to comply.

Hey, at least that would spread the costs more equally, right?  This way, even if you swim to London, or just stay home and watch the Olympics on TV, you’ll still have to pay.