Making sense of what the Trump administration is doing through the fog of its everyday scandals, reversals, and lies is challenging, but behind the fog is a stark reality of program and policy changes. Some of them have the potential to threaten our existence as we know it. For instance, Trump’s recent attack on California’s tail-pipe standards.
For anyone who ever had to drive or live in the polluted Los Angeles Basin in the ’70s and ’80s it was (and still is) easy to understand the noxious impacts of smog-related watery eyes, coughs, and increased asthmatic symptoms. (After living in Los Angeles for six months, I can remember being shocked to see snow-capped mountains on a clear winter’s day while driving down the freeway.) Smog, however, is not the only thing that comes out of tail pipes, nor are respiratory health impacts the only threat we need to be concerned about.
Our personal vehicles are a major cause of global climate change, even more than greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Collectively, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, pouring around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas. California, in addressing its legendary smog problem, the worst in the nation, sought in the 1960s a waiver from the Clean Air Act (CAA) to enact more stringent smog-reducing tail-pipe emission standards than provided by the CAA.
Because we were then living in a sane, science-based political world, concerned with health and smog impacts, the waiver was granted.
This waiver was just for California, and it only covers pollution from cars. However, under the same provision any other state can choose to adopt California’s more stringent standards. Fifteen states have currently adopted our rules now impacting 135 million people, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population.
This is what Trump’s EPA wants to change. It wants California and the other 15 states to conform to the CAA’s lesser tail-pipe standards and return to emitting more pollution and greenhouse gases into an already polluted and overheating atmosphere. Only in a bizarre world where everything is turned upside down would this make sense.
In the 21st century, smog is not the biggest threat coming from our tailpipes; greenhouse gases and climate change are. Climate change is not just about sea level rise, crop destruction, drought, and extreme heat; it is ultimately about the very habitability of our planet. When viewed in this context, things like attacking (i.e., wanting to increase) California’s tail-pipe standards take on an entirely different meaning.
The average world temperature increased 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) between the Industrial Revolution and the 21st century. This century, if things don’t change, it will increase between 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). As it is, we are now experiencing: extreme record-breaking heat, devastating wildland fires, severe drought, declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, out-of-control storms, and flooding. Climate scientists attribute all of this to global climate change and are calling it a “new normal” for Planet Earth.
If we can limit the climate to a 2-degree Celsius (3.6-degrees Fahrenheit) increase (the goal of the Paris Accords which Donald Trump took us out of was less than 2 degrees C), we will experience the extinction of the world’s coral reefs, sea level rise high enough to cause the land where 5 million people now live to be submerged, Mediterranean freshwater would drop dramatically, and locally we would have more extreme heat and resulting fires and less access to fresh imported and surface water. At 3 degrees C we will begin to experience the decline of Earth’s ecosystems.
Ecosystems are Earth’s life-sustaining biological machinery. Literally, the Earth is one large ecosystem comprised of myriad biological components: forests, oceans, grasslands, watersheds, and more. These components, working together, ensure our existence by: providing food, removing pollutants from air and water, controlling soil erosion, allowing crops to grow, putting oxygen into the air, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and providing habitats for species including Homo sapiens. If they begin to fail, we begin to fail.
California and the 15 states that follow us will fight this in court. We can each call our elected officials in opposition to this perverse policy. And, we can make life-style choices, which include high-mileage cars, electric and hybrid cars, and now-available hydrogen cars. However, the most important thing we can do is, regardless of party affiliation, vote to put Democrats in charge of the Congress this November. Think of it as a vote to save the Earth!