The threat of the coronavirus pandemic to our society will take months, if not more than a year to overcome, but unfortunately not before many tragic deaths. As one of many people who regard climate change as a much greater, existential threat to the humanity’s survival, I want to believe that tackling this pandemic will cause us to rethink our reluctance to tackle climate change decisively.
Unfortunately, while the coronavirus wreaks havoc, we are facing our first consequential test with today’s release of the Trump administration’s roll back of the Clean Car standards. This is its latest – and arguably most significant – action to undermine efforts to slow climate change. Delaware Sen. Tom Carper called it “the height of irresponsibility for this administration to finalize a rollback that will lead to dirtier air while our country is working around the clock to respond to a respiratory pandemic whose effects may be exacerbated by air pollution.”
It may appear like one more in a long string of environmental rules that have been relaxed by Trump, who has downplayed climate change a “hoax,” much like he initially downplayed the risk from coronavirus. But it is not. It will impact every American’s wallet, their health and the planet’s well-being to a much larger degree than his past environmental roll backs. And, ironically, it has even divided the automakers, whom it was supposed to cater to.
Bad science, bad outcomes
In 2012, with broad support by car manufacturers, the Obama administration published a historic rule to double the average of fuel economy of new vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon (MPG) and prevent 6 billion metric tons of carbon pollution by 2025. The standards would save the economy $1.7 trillion and a consumer up to $8,000 at the pump. In 2014 the Economist called it one of the top global initiatives to address climate change.
In a time when transportation emissions are the fastest growing contributor to GHGs and 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree that anthropomorphic emissions are responsible for climate change, this rule rolls back the 54.5 MPG to 40 MPG based on faulty science and legal arguments. Last February, even EPA’s Science Advisory Board, hand-picked by the Trump administration, was highly critical of the initial proposal. They pointed out that weaknesses in the scientific analysis lead to implausible results and added that if the mistakes are not corrected, the existing Obama program “might provide a better outcome for society than the proposed revision.”
Unfortunately, the administration’s efforts to correct the science exposed the problem even more clearly: The cost-benefit analysis now shows the rule’s net benefit is a negative $22 billion, costing consumers some $1,400 more at the pump for an additional 84 billion gallons of fuel. That will cost the planet 923 billion metric tons of additional carbon dioxide (CO2), equal to about 18% US’s total emissions in one year.
The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that it will result in $190 billion in public health costs, with 18,500 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments – some of whom may be coronavirus survivors with damaged lungs.
In my 18 years of experience as the director of the office of Transportation and Air Quality, EPA never once tried to justify a regulation that produced negative benefits. This defies the purpose of a regulation, which is to create a net benefit.
As California and other states challenge this action in the courts, this rule will most likely be found as arbitrary and capricious by the courts. To date, Trump administration has lost more than 93% of its legal cases.
Out of synch with the global village
Trump’s “America first” ethos is just another version of our society’s embrace of hyper-individualism. Given the enormous damage this new rule will have on efforts to fight climate change, the administration’s plans to push forward with it suggest that they don’t accept their actions today will harm others – especially future generations. Chinese and European emissions harm us the same way ours harm their citizens, much less, all of the children of the world.
The U.S., long the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, has been displaced to the number two position by China, but still accounts for 16% of global GHG emissions, followed by the EU. China is leading in the global sales of electric vehicles and Europe is moving forward with more stringent rules, policies, and significant amounts of resources to reduce GHG emissions. The EU has set a CO2 standard equivalent to 76 MPG for 2030, with an even more ambitious ultimate goal of transforming its entire auto industry to electric vehicles. In December 2019, the EU announced the European Green Deal to make Europe a carbon-free continent by 2050, and the expectation is that EU will strengthen the current 2030 car standards while expanding the use of electric cars.
A mixed bag of corporate responsibility
Just 10 years ago, I was in the White House’s Rose Garden watching the CEOs of major car manufacturers endorse President Obama’s announcement of new standards for the new cars and light trucks on America’s roads. After Trump’s election, many of the same companies asked Trump to weaken the rule’s provisions. But upon learning how extreme the rollbacks would be, some car companies said that it went too far. Other groups, including a large coalition of states led by California, have launched legal challenges to the roll back.
Faced with the legally uncertain fate of the new rule, several major auto manufacturers have decided to depart from the environmentally disastrous path plotted by the Trump administration. In 2019, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW put themselves on the right side of history by agreeing to follow the more strict standards that California demands to sell cars in their state.
But, as the legal cases – which will probably take several years to be resolved – move through courts, the boards and CEOs of car manufacturers face a stark decision. They can play by the old rules that have helped exacerbate the current climate crisis, making decisions based on quarterly earnings reports and short-term profits and side with the Trump administration in adopting weaker standards. Or they can help combat climate change-driven disasters by joining California and the other four car manufacturers.
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light”
Once again, let me remind us all – climate change is an existential threat to the survival of humanity on this planet and will be with us far longer than the coronavirus. As Aristotle once said, “it is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
The rule will likely be sold to the public as another way to help industry to recover from the economic setbacks caused by the virus. We will all be too consumed with fears of the pandemic and protecting ourselves, our families, and loved ones to worry about an environmental roll back.
But this rule will do much more harm than good. We need to add our voices to help its legal defeat in our courts – and its rejection in the court of public opinion.