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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Spoonful of CAFÉ

Air Date: Week of

Environmental lawyer Dan Becker says that Americans who want to pass strong global warming legislation might take a cue from environmentalists who finally surpassed Detroit automakers’ opposition to higher vehicle fuel standards after a two decade struggle.


GELLERMAN: Well, GM and the other U.S. automakers are heeding the call: thar’s gold in them thar plants and fuel-efficient cars. And the manufacturers are finally diggin’ the message. But environmental lawyer and commentator Dan Becker says it’s taken some kicking and screaming.

DECKER: After 30 years of making more and more gas guzzlers, Detroit is finally poised for a turnaround. The reason for the change isn’t enlightened self-interest by the likes of General Motors. It is because Congress passed a law, voting for the first time since 1975 to update the Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE law that sets mile per gallon standards for cars, SUVs and other light trucks.

The new law requires automakers to make their vehicles average 35 mpg by 2020, up from 25 mpg today. This will save America over 1 million barrels of oil a day—about half our Persian Gulf imports—it will slash global warming pollution by 20 million tonnes per year, and save consumers over $20 billion at the pump. The good news is that we have won the biggest single step to curbing global warming, the most important environmental victory since the 1990 Clean Air Act. The bad news is what this effort bodes for the next Congressional climate battle.

To win, environmentalists had to fight auto companies for nearly 20 years. We blasted the Big Three automakers’ opposition to good laws and failure to make clean cars. When Honda and Toyota introduced their hybrids, we took them on a 50-city tour, showing that carmakers can produce clean vehicles despite Detroit’s denials. We took the dispute out of Washington, winning laws in nearly 20 states to cut global warming pollution from cars.

Unfortunately, auto companies and the Bush Administration have temporarily blocked these laws. But, at least one car company, Nissan, split from the industry and supported the CAFE bill because they know they will have to make clean cars for the states. Now, Congress wouldn’t have voted with us without three-dollar gas, growing public concern about global warming and a new majority and Speaker willing to take on the special interests.

This year, as Congress turns to broad climate legislation that would cap industrial emissions but allow polluters to buy and sell the right to pollute, the lessons from the CAFE bill loom. If it took a perfect storm to beat just one powerful industry, what will it take to beat the oil, coal, utility, Chamber of Commerce, and other lobbies lining up to kill or gut a strong global warming law?

Scientists warn that we have only a few years to begin to reverse the growing emissions of global warming pollution. So we can’t afford another decade-long delay. There are several ways to make progress. As they did with cars, the states can lead the way. The next President can champion the cause. Congress can tackle one polluter at a time rather than all at once.

But despite tough odds, our new mile per gallon law shows that we can win when we’re persistent, have bold leaders and the American people demand action.

GELLERMAN: Dan Becker is an environmental lawyer specializing in global warming and cars.



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