Doing the unspeakable


Can the U.S. take a big bite out of its greenhouse gas emissions without muttering the words climate change?

The Obama administration is betting it can. And it's testing the political waters with a new round of vehicle emissions rules to cover cars made between 2017 and 2025. From the Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin:

Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate-change policy, makes a forceful case for the need to slash greenhouse-gas emissions and boost the efficiency of cars and small trucks: The moves will cut America’s oil consumption, foster the nation’s energy independence, save consumers money at the pump and help revive domestic auto manufacturers.

What she doesn’t volunteer is that they will curb climate change.

The rules in formally proposed form aren't due out 'til September, but the powers that be at the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently indicated they were thinking about requiring cars and light trucks to deliver 56.2 miles per gallon, on average, by 2025. (Consumers rejoice!) If they stick to that number, it will be a big deal, given that federal policy to mitigate the effects of climate change is otherwise a vacuum of nothingness. As Eilperin puts it, the regulations "would do more to cut global-warming pollution than any other policy in the president’s time in office." By 2030, they'd reduce U.S. emissions at present levels by 11.6 percent. 

So that's the good news. The bad news, of course, is that to move climate policy forward, we may have to pretend that's not what we're actually doing. Sure, if administration officials even reference greenhouse gas or "harmful" emissions when discussing fuel economy standards -- as Obama himself did in a recent speech in Iowa -- they are indirectly talking about climate change. But Rick Piltz for Climate Science Watch breaks down why obscuring the issue is problematic: "Obama’s failure to address climate change forthrightly in his public communications leaves a void where presidential leadership could play a valuable role ... This failure will only make more difficult the challenge, down the road, of creating the necessary public understanding and building and maintaining the necessary public support for the kinds of policies that will be necessary to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption."

It's also worth noting that what counts as progress in the U.S. auto industry still lags behind global standards. In Europe, 60 miles per gallon should be the norm by 2020

The bargaining has already begun between car makers and the administration. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are lobbying for strict standards, and they're looking to California for leverage. The Golden State is able to set its own clean car rules, which are applied in 12 other states. If the feds' final proposal is too weak, reports the New York Times'  Wheels blog, enviros will push California to adopt more stringent rules, which would create an inconsistent regulatory environment for the industry. That threat carries a lot of weight, Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety told Wheels: “The only thing the auto companies want less than a strong federal standard is a stronger state standard. But the threat of a separate California program can ensure that the loopholes go away.”

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photos courtesy of fredcamino, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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