3 Lessons to Winning the War on Global Warming

OP-ED: 'We can’t count on a dysfunctional Congress. Regulation is the key. It can supply the needed muscle against coal-loving electric utilities.'

The fight to cut gas mileage and halve auto emissions presents a hopeful lesson: The United States can cut fossil fuel emissions, write Dan Becker James Gerstenzang in an op-ed for ICN. Credit: Zoran Milich/InsideClimate News

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Dan Becker directs the Safe Climate Campaign, which advocates strong measures to fight global warming. James Gerstenzang, the campaign’s editorial director, formerly covered the environment and the White House for the Los Angeles Times.

The Dumpster may be nearly full.

A World Meteorological Organization report has led scientists to fear that the Earth is losing its capacity to absorb heat-trapping gases, the Washington Post reported.

With greenhouse gas emissions rising, we don’t know whether we can hold warming to two degrees Celsius, the goal of UN negotiations. But we can’t if the United States ignores its critical leadership role.

For more than two decades, environmentalists fought for tough auto pollution standards. We won rules that will halve emissions and gasoline use—President Obama’s signature effort to fight climate change. They will deliver a new-car fleet that averages 54.5 mpg in 2025 and cut carbon dioxide pollution by six billion tons.

As the world faces an accelerating climate challenge, the mileage-and-emissions fight presents a hopeful lesson: The United States can cut fossil fuel emissions.

The fight that produced the biggest single step any nation has taken against global warming can guide us as we embark on the next critical measures: cutting power plant emissions and oil use.

We can’t count on a dysfunctional Congress. Regulation is the key. It provided the weapon that defeated auto industry recalcitrance. It can supply the needed muscle against coal-loving electric utilities and other industrial polluters.

Making real cuts in fossil fuel emissions from power plants and other polluters is critical. As we wrote in an op-ed in Truthout, the key is making more efficient use of electricity, bringing down demand until most of our needs can be met by wind and solar power. Natural gas will replace some heavily polluting coal while renewable energy is phased in. But natural gas is acceptable only if it is developed and transported cleanly and safely, and with virtually no leaks from well to boiler.

Steering toward these crucial goals, here are three key lessons from the winning auto campaign:

Lesson 1: Choose a tough, aggressive goal and stick to it.

In 1989, the fledgling campaign to clean up car emissions set a huge goal: Begin to remove oil from the economy, a critical step in slashing global warming pollution. We didn’t settle for negligible progress. President George W. Bush inched up standards for SUVs and other light trucks to 24 mpg—a 2.4 mpg increase—in 2002, and left car standards unchanged. We fought on, demanding standards that would genuinely reduce emissions. The stringent 54.5 mpg standard was the result. The victory was worth the fight.

Next step: Slash power plant emissions and cut oil use in half over the next 20 years.

We will achieve these goals by relying on greater efficiency delivered by new technologies, and by increased use of renewable energy—primarily wind and solar power. And whether a truck, an airplane, a furnace or a factory, if it uses oil, it must be made to operate more efficiently.

Lesson 2: Fight where you can win.

Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of this century, we faced a Washington political scene dominated by auto industry lobbyists who fought strengthening national fuel economy rules beyond 27.5 mpg, the level they reached in 1989. A recalcitrant Congress and three successive presidents refused to increase the standards. How did we get around them? We moved the fight to politically receptive California. We understood that automakers would be forced to relent if we won stronger pollution rules in the nation’s largest auto market, and then in other states too.

We found a crucial advocate in the state Assembly–Fran Pavley, a Democrat representing a Los Angeles suburb. She guided enactment the first statewide carbon emissions cuts. Eventually, responding to encouragement from grassroots environmental action, 12 other states signed on. Automakers sued. In Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled against the companies, and cleared the path for tough federal as well as state standards.

Next step: The current Congress is even less friendly to strong global warming action than Congress was to tough auto rules 20-plus years ago. But reliance on strong regulation means we can still win this fight. We need to urge the president, whose administration is developing standards for utilities, to adopt power plant rules far more ambitious than his aides appear to be considering. Advice to those officials: Abandon loopholes.

As we cut coal combustion, the quick and dirty course is to switch to natural gas. Instead, let’s increase energy efficiency, which we explored in a New York Times op-ed. Burning nothing is better than burning anything. But by increasing efficiency, we also avoid the real risk that methane leaks will trap as much heat as burning the coal that natural gas would replace. And, lessening the demand for energy via increased efficiency avoids building a natural gas infrastructure that the energy industry would run for decades to recover its costs.

Just as the focus on California was critical to success in the auto fight, the reliance on strong EPA regulations can put us on the road toward slashing power plant pollution.

Lesson 3: Hold polluters accountable—and take the fight to them.

In the clean-car fight, automakers used the courts—unsuccessfully—to fight state rules. Environmentalists used the court of public opinion, chastising the industry for raising consumers’ costs and subsidizing oil oligarchs by selling gas guzzlers. Ford became a target for producing vehicles that averaged worse mileage than the Model T. General Motors provided a big, fat Hummer-dinger of a target. Image-conscious automakers cringed.

But it wasn’t all negative: Technology leaders won plaudits; the hybrid Prius, introduced in 1997, grew into a rolling advertisement for good corporate citizenship. The message: If Toyota could build a clean car, why couldn’t Chrysler?

The strategy paid off: Automakers’ reputations corroded and Nissan broke ranks, supporting improved standards. The automakers’ opposition began to crumble.

Next step: Educate Americans about how much the energy industry costs our health and our wallets. It threatens our children and damages our atmosphere. 

Federal subsidies pump billions of our dollars into energy companies each year, allowing them to boost profits and ignore 21st century technology and renewable fuels. That won’t help us end our addiction to coal, oil and natural gas.

Let’s challenge Congress to remove taxpayer support for burning dead dinosaurs brought to the surface as filthy fuels. Even if we can’t halt polluters’ frenzy of feeding at the federal trough, we can tarnish their reputations.

Bottom line: The clean-car rules are proof that the United States can successfully tackle global warming. They are a GPS for pressuring other big polluting industries to modernize.

For two decades, the auto industry bleated it could not meet strong standards—even as it struggled to sell its gas guzzlers and fought stringent state rules and attacks on its performance and integrity. It’s not a far cry from the oil and utility industries’ insistence that they can’t stop poisoning the atmosphere.

Automakers are beginning to use advanced internal combustion engines and transmissions and strong, lightweight materials. They will build more hybrids and electric vehicles. They are doing what they need to do to meet the new rules of the road, which have already raised average new car gas mileage by five miles per gallon. Now, we must match the steep auto emissions cuts with equally dramatic improvements wherever we burn oil and generate electricity.

No nation exceeds the United States’ technologic and economic ability to tackle global warming. In the wake of the United Nations’ bid to accelerate its climate campaign, our goals must be bold, our strategy smart. As the nation that has poisoned the atmosphere with the most greenhouse gas—and made the single biggest stride to change its ways–the United States has the experience, ability and responsibility to lead the way to a safe climate.