Eric Davis: Trump’s fuel rules likely a disaster

With all the attention in recent weeks to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Rod Rosenstein’s future as Deputy Attorney General, and trade negotiations among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, many other important stories have received less news coverage than they deserve. One such story involves the Trump Administration’s plans for automobile fuel-efficiency standards and projections of global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department have proposed freezing federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks at the levels planned for 2020 model year vehicles, which will start going on sale next year. Regulations put in place by the Obama Administration in 2012 would have increased the fuel-efficiency standards through 2025; would have encouraged manufacturers to build more hybrid, electric, and other alternatively-powered vehicles; and would have allowed California and other states (including Vermont) to impose more stringent fuel-efficiency standards than the federal ones. All of these measures, designed to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, have been put on hold by the Trump Administration.
In August, environmental and transportation regulators released a draft environmental impact statement on the effects of this regulatory freeze. The statement acknowledged that the regulatory freeze would lead to increased emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the statement went on to say that, because global warming is already so far advanced, not imposing the additional restrictions on vehicle emissions would not matter.
The statement assumes that, if current trends continue, average global temperatures would rise by 4 degrees Celsius, or about 7 degrees Fahrenheit, from late nineteenth-century levels to 2100. For context, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which President Trump has denounced, pledges participating nations to try to restrain global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. In other words, Trump’s own regulators say that the administration’s own actions will contribute to a rise in global temperatures that is more than twice as great as that considered by the Paris Agreement signatories to pose significant threats to the planet.
At a local level, consider the impact of a 7-degree temperature increase on Vermont’s economy. How would the winter recreation industry, so important to Vermont, cope with such a massive change? Would maple syrup production be affected if winters were less cold and spring came earlier? What would be the impact of far more frequent 90-degree summer days on Vermont’s electricity usage? Would droughts affecting agricultural production be more frequent if temperatures were warmer?
Globally, temperature rises to the extent forecast in the report could be catastrophic. Coastal cities all around the world could be at risk from rising sea levels. Natural resources such as coral reefs could dissolve as a result of increasingly acidic oceans. Extreme cyclones and hurricanes could be more common, threatening inundation and destruction in regions such as the Caribbean, the southeast United States, and southeast Asia.
Trump’s regulators wrote in the report that avoiding these sorts of effects “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”
Halting promising near-term actions such as increasing fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks represents a head-in-the-sand attitude. Longer-term, the Trump Administration has adopted, if not completely ceded governmental authority to, the views of the fossil fuel and coal industries.
Trump’s successors will have a lot of work to do cleaning up the messes he and his administration will have left behind, in economic policy, international relations, and energy and environmental policy, to mention just a few areas. Hopefully global warming will not have accelerated to such an extent that a new administration, when it arrives, will be unable to mitigate the damage.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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