The Trump administration’s revoking of California auto emission standards is part of an obsessive campaign against environmental regulation. Liam Glen writes on how the partisan divide has overshadowed concern for human and environmental well-being.
President Trump’s war against environmental regulations continues. His latest move has been to revoke California’s ability to set auto emission standards tougher than federal regulations.
Trump’s denial of large-scale problems like climate change is well-known. But as a candidate, he gave a nominal commitment to the government’s basic duty of ensuring “clean air, clean water.” He has spent his presidency, however, rolling back regulations on both air and water.
This push to dismantle the regulatory state often goes beyond even the requests of companies who benefit from it. We are increasingly seeing a reflexive anti-environmentalism, a reactionary impulsive born from modern hyperpartisanship.
The Case Against Clean Air
Phenomena like climate change are complex enough that it is easy to deny them, or at least to downplay human responsibility. The direct causes and consequences of water and air pollution, however, make the case for inaction much harder.
California’s stringent auto emission standards are a product of the 1950s and 1960s when smog made cities like Los Angeles practically unlivable. Today, the American Lung Association still places all six of the most polluted American cities in California, with Los Angeles topping the list.
The first argument against environmental regulations of any type is economics. In rolling back the emission standards, President Trump bragged about “far less expensive cars for the consumer.”
Cheaper, higher-emission cars will enter the market. But to frame it as a consumer-friendly move ignores a fundamental fact about fuel-efficient cars: they may have a higher sticker price, but in the long-run, they require far less spending on gasoline.
Automakers themselves are unenthusiastic about the regulatory rollbacks. Instead, the fossil fuel industry has been a major driving force behind the administration’s actions. They are the only ones who benefit from Americans spending more money on gas.
Energy efficiency is one of the most logical goals possible – getting the same utility from fewer resources – but from lightbulbs to dishwashers, the current administration continues fighting against it.
Corporate donors are cheering on this push, but the influence of simple partisanship is understated. Trump has made a point of repealing any Democratic laws he can. He also must get a special sense of satisfaction from picking a fight with Californian leaders, with whom he has frequently feuded.
Of course, the White House is not full of officials maniacally plotting to thwart anything supported by the opposition out of pure spite. But political polarization has made non-biased problem-solving practically impossible.
It is easier than ever for policymakers to downplay any negative effects from pollution and exaggerate the economic harm as regulations, so long as doing so advances their agenda.
The Fallen Consensus
It was not always like this. Nearly all of America’s landmark environmental laws were bipartisan compromises.
Richard Nixon’s private comments on environmental issues sounded a lot like Trump today, “Maybe, there are safety problems, I assume… I think they’re greatly exaggerated, but there are some… But we can’t have a completely safe society or safe highways or safe cars and pollution-free and so forth. Or we could have, go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.”
But in public, Nixon knew that the American people wanted solutions. Ultimately, he agreed to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and sign the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts into law.
In a similar spirit, George H.W. Bush pushed through a bipartisan amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1990. His market-based reforms are credited with ending the crisis of acid rain in the US.
Today, bipartisan compromise on any issue, let along the environment, seems unimaginable. The current administration’s stance is purely one-sided. Unless it has to do with dismantling regulations, they are not interested.
Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, was previously known for the amount of times he had sued the agency. His replacement Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist.
Public opinion about environmental issues in the US are similarly becoming polarized. Rather than looking for solutions for climate change and other issues, we are yelling about hamburgers.
Meanwhile, Democrats have started to propose extreme action as a response to Republicans’ extreme inaction. Ambitious proposals like the Green New deal are unlikely to become law in the near future, but supporters hope that they can at least shift the public conversation.
This is an untested strategy, but those who wish for action at least find solace knowing public opinion seems to be with them. While Republicans may not be concerned about climate change and other environmental issues, a decisive majority of Democrats and – more importantly – independents certainly are.
Despite this, the Republican Party has not yet seen a reason to change its tactics. The current political environment rewards those who place partisanship above problem-solving. But with public opinion on the side of preserving the environment, this may be a time when that strategy does not pay off.