Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Climate Cranks

Green State Column, Emporia Gazette, 2.4.11:

The conservative uproar over greenhouse gas regulations that are to be implemented by the EPA this year harkens back to the auto industry’s outrage over the Clean Air Act four decades ago.
Now, like then, the rallying cries complain about “too much government” telling companies what to do and the impossible cost of applying new technology. All this bluster threatens to push back implementation of the regulations.

It’s got a familiar ring.

In the battle against the Clean Air Act in 1970, the leaders of Ford, Chrysler and GM claimed that retooling for cleaner-running cars would break not only their companies but also the national economy. Ford’s Lee Iacocca predicted that making changes to drastically cut down emissions could shut down car production completely and “do irreparable damage to the American economy.”

Last week, the Kansas House Committee on Energy and Utilities sounded the same alarms. House Resolution No. 6008 supports the current anti-EPA movement spearheaded nationally by coal-state Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

The resolution states that the EPA’s regulations are a “train wreck” with “potentially devastating consequences” on the U.S. “economy, jobs and competitiveness.” Sound familiar?

For all their doomsday protests, Iacocca and his friends were wrong about the price tag of building cleaner cars. As it turned out, the auto industry’s estimates of the cost of adding catalytic converters (the U.S. technology breakthrough spurred by the Clean Air Act) were two times higher than reality: they claimed it would come to about $3,000 per car, when it actually turned out to cost only $1,300.

The car companies survived and the national economy thrived. As U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) recently reflected on the first 20 years of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. cut air pollution “by 690 percent when our economy was growing 200 percent. . . . The environmental laws have not been a threat to our economic development. They’ve shown that it’s not a choice between economic growth and environmental protection; the two go hand in hand.”

A 2008 study from the research group Management Information Services, Inc., backs up Waxman’s observations: “Our major finding is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, EP [environmental protection], economic growth, and jobs creation are complementary and compatible: Investments in EP create jobs and displace jobs, but the net effect on employment is positive.”

The study firmly contradicts the “job-killer” argument against EPA regulations: “Environment protection has grown rapidly to become a major sales-generating, job-creating industry—$300 billion/year and 5 million jobs in 2003.”

Tell that to the Kansas Energy and Utilities Committee that resolved that “over-regulation by the EPA is driving jobs and industry out of the United States.” Block those greenhouse gas regulations for two years, they say, and instead launch a “multi-agency study” to hammer out a cost-benefit analysis of “all of the EPA’s current and planned regulations together.”

Representative Forrest Knox (R-Dist. 13), vice chair of the committee who introduced the resolution, told me that the EPA "really has you over a barrel if you don’t go along with what they say. It would take some action in Congress to change this, and that’s what this resolution is encouraging Congress to do."

Representative Annie Kuether (D-Dist. 55), one of five Democrats on the committee of 19, was the sole "no" vote on the resolution. She told me in an email that "there is an 'understanding' when a bill is introduced that it is unanimously approved. I broke the rules on this one and voted no."

The resolution states that economic recovery is the only thing the federal government should concern itself with at the moment--forget about regulating industries or promoting the public health and safety. And it assumes that EPA regulations are job killers: “The primary goal of government at the present time must be to . . . foster a stable and predictable business environment” that will create jobs.

It’s hard to find a clearer statement about the conservative ideology that the free market is the sacred and only solution to every challenge the nation faces. If Americans had believed that in 1970 and not demanded that auto makers do the right thing, we wouldn’t have a 98 percent decrease in lead emissions, 71 percent decrease in particulate matter, 27 percent decrease in sulfur dioxide, and 31 percent decrease in carbon monoxide (2000 figures).

The Gulf oil spill last year reconfirmed that corporate cultures like BP are driven by profit at the expense of health and safety: the company’s proven track record of refusing to comply with safety regulations helped sweeten their $4.4 billion fourth-quarter profit at the end of 2009, a 70 percent increase over the profit in that quarter the previous year.

Oil and gas companies don’t want to cut into any fraction of profit, so they are going to fight the EPA with everything they’ve got to delay or all-out destroy greenhouse gas rules. We can expect an aggressive anti-EPA campaign from the “climate cranks,” as author Mark Hertsgaard calls them, “the corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues who for twenty years have done all in their power to keep this country, especially the government, from seriously addressing the problem” of climate change.

Powerful opponents of the Clean Air Act couldn’t overcome the public’s demand for cleaning up smog-choked cities and towns. The question now is: do Americans still care enough, or do too many believe in the doctrine of a free market free-for-all, the failed theory that everyone will benefit when profit comes at any cost, especially at the expense of an individual’s life, liberty and right to a livable environment?


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