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Droughts in the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic United States. Floods in Texas, Southern England, China, Pakistan, Colombia and, of all places, Sudan. Watch global weather reports and, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way global warming is blowing. It’s blowing your way, and fast.
Let’s hope Congress “knows,” when the House takes up a historic measure, possibly as soon as next week, to raise automobile fuel-economy standards for the first time in almost 30 years.
As a world leader in greenhouse-gas emissions, the United States is woefully behind in curbing its esurient fuel-consumption habits.
The House next week may and should follow the Senate’s lead of last month, when the Senate voted to raise fuel-economy standards. Congressional fights over CAFE (corporate average fuel-economy standards) have in the past parodied historical scenes from ancient Rome. The automakers formerly known as the Big Three would mimic Nero, twiddling their thumbs while the world (instead of Rome) burned. There is some evidence the not-so-Big Three are slowly emerging from ancient times and entering the modern era. Yes, they still argue for public consumption that requiring them to produce fuel-efficient cars threatens their long-lost pre-eminence, will ultimately kill the U.S. car industry and cost America hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But they’ve also realized the public is not buying their “woe is me” attitude any more. Japanese carmakers sprinted ahead of U.S. manufacturers decades ago with higher-mileage cars. Now the Japanese are dominant not only in the world but in the U.S. market as well.
So when the Senate acted last month, U.S. carmakers were surprisingly favoring Senate conservation efforts. Freed of the shackles of Detroit’s routine opposition to raising CAFE standards, senators last month voted to require each manufacturer’s vehicle fleet to average at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020. And they eliminated long-standing and counterproductive separate sets of fuel standards for cars and for light trucks. What a difference a few floods and a few droughts make!
Not to mention, a few public opinion polls as well. The American public is coming around to demanding a more fuel-efficient homegrown fleet. The Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency released a poll this week of almost 4,000 likely voters in seven U.S. states showing that almost 90 percent of “likely voters surveyed favor requiring the automobile industry to improve fuel efficiency …. and … favored a 35-mpg standard over 32 mpg and said the changes should take effect by 2018,” according to the Detroit News.
The Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency , by the way, describes itself as a Washington-based interest group that supports higher fuel-efficiency standards.
This is a turn-around of such historic proportions, we should sit down and take note. Our Hummer-loving, SUV-driving, speedboat-hugging American public actually supports a law that would require more of us to drive fuel-efficient cars? And that unctuous, oil-industry denizen of a president of ours even directs the federal government to consider higher fuel-efficiency standards for new cars (which he did in May)? Is this Mars or the good old U.S. of A?
Americans are starting to get the message. Maybe we’re starting to take fuel consumption more seriously because so much of the United States is suffering under a major and unusual drought.
This is especially true on the West Coast, in the Southwest and even where I live in the Mid-Atlantic states. Things are so bad for farmers in Maryland, for example, that the governor last week asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare a drought emergency throughout much of the state.
Maybe, on a less altruistic note, we’re getting sick of paying more than $3 per gallon for gas. Maybe we’re paying attention to last week’s report by the National Petroleum Council, which explained that with world population rising, living standards rising and energy supplies and refinery capacity staying static, that gas prices are going nowhere but up, up, up.
Congress’ bill isn’t perfect. It does not boost fuel efficiency high enough or quickly enough. Most importantly, it does nothing to bolster renewable-fuels production, or tax oil-industry windfall profits. But it’s a start, and an important reversal of decades of intransigence on this most important of issues.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)