Monday, August 29, 2005

Greenhouse Rebellion

Frank O'Donnell

August 29, 2005

Frank O'Donnell is president of  Clean Air Watch, a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.

Three decades ago, 11 western states organized what became known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” an attempt to wrest control of public lands away from the federal government. 

That movement eventually fizzled out.  But now there’s a new uprising in states from California to New York—a quiet insurrection led by Republican governors. You might call it the “Greenhouse Rebellion.”  Politicians inside the Beltway might want to start paying attention.

This mutiny is happening against a backdrop of rising public anger over gasoline prices and a feeling that both the White House and Congress have blown it—notwithstanding photo-ops and other propaganda attempts to tout the newly enacted energy bill. 

A recent Harris poll found the public furious at both the president and Congress. The gas price issue has hit such a raw nerve with the public that Republican congressional leaders are openly expressing fears that the pinch at the pump may cause pain for them at the ballot box.  (A minor consolation for the GOP: The Harris poll found congressional Democrats also in low repute.)

The Bush administration chose this politically volatile time to roll out proposed changes to federal fuel economy standards for SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans.  Big car companies, led by General Motors, could hardly contain their glee with the plan they had helped craft: Though the proposal would call for a small increase in gas mileage from these vehicles, it would also set more lenient requirements for heavier vehicles—and continue to exempt the biggest gas guzzlers such as GM’s Hummer.

Talk about a missed opportunity! As the Sierra Club noted, “Making our cars and trucks go farther on a gallon of gas is the biggest single step we can take to save money at the gas pump, cut oil dependence and curb global warming.” 

Instead, the Bush administration sided—as it has with oil, coal and power industries opposed to limits on global warming pollution—with powerful companies such as GM that are interested in boosting stock prices rather than promoting the national interest.  (An attitude perhaps best summed up by then-GM Chairman Alfred Sloan, who reportedly told a group of stockholders on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 that his corporation was “too big” to be affected by “petty international squabbles.”)

The administration’s head-in-the-sand allegiance to these big companies has prompted the Greenhouse Rebellion, led by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Governor George Pataki, Republicans who seem more in touch with public sentiment as well as with environmental realities.  (Among the others involved in this bicoastal insurrection include the Republican governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont as well as their Democratic counterparts in Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey and Delaware.)

Schwarzenegger has put into place state legislation that would require carmakers to reduce global warming pollution from their vehicles, a move that would have the side benefit of improving gas mileage and reducing the demand for gas that is driving prices higher. 

“I say the global warming debate is over. We know the science, we see the threat and we know the time for action is now,” Schwarzenegger noted in a June radio address.

Despite intense auto industry opposition—fueled last week by the Bush administration’s fuel economy proposal, which included a declaration of opposition to the California plan—states throughout the Northeast as well as Washington and Oregon are lining up to adopt the better California vehicle standards.

Meanwhile, Pataki was lauded as a “climate champion” in June by the nonprofit Clean Air-Cool Planet, which noted that the New York Republican had set in motion a regional plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the Northeast.

The first such cooperative action of its kind in the nation, Pataki and his colleagues would create a market-driven system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from more than 600 facilities. The agreement, which could be made final in late September, would include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. 

Even mayors are taking up rhetorical pitchforks. Earlier this year, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg—yet another prominent Republican—joined a bipartisan national coalition of more than 130 mayors committed to fighting global warming on a local level.

There’s little doubt that an effective national strategy would be preferable to these state, local and regional efforts.  But as long as our inside-the-Beltway politicians continue to protect powerful companies at the expense of the public—and wonder why their poll numbers are sinking—it’s probably the best we can hope for.

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