Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Saving the World, One Car at a Time

Today the Obama administration proposed an industry standard of 35.5 MPG for cars and light trucks. This would go to 42 MPG for cars and 26 MPG for light trucks by 2016.

This is an interesting idea. In regulatory circles there is a long running debate about the value of regulation. One side feels regulation quickens the mind, so to speak, and forces those who are being regulated to get their act together to comply with the mandate. Without regulation, the regulated would just stall and continue business as usual with no real substantive change. The other side feels that incentives and a more gradual shift are the efficient way to move towards the ultimate goal at the lowest cost with the least collateral damage. This gives time for companies to proceed to the ultimate goal in an orderly way that best balances the often competing ideals and demands of regulators, consumers, owners, and employees.

Much of the impetus behind this specific regulation that Obama unveiled is the supposed urgency of global warming. If we don’t act fast in curbing man-made emissions we will have global catastrophe. Global warming is bad. It’s very bad. Everybody knows this! I would not be surprised to find in 20 years that we will look back on this period of global warming as an example of hysteria.

The more complicated questions in the global warming (and what to do about it) debate are (1) the extent of how much it is attributed to mankind and is man-made?, and (2) Even if it is granted that much of it is man-made, how far are we willing to go curb what mankind can do in terms of allowable actions? There are natural variations in climate over time with hotter and cooler periods. This has been the case for thousands and thousands years. To suggest that the current global warming is, or must be, all man-made is not honest.

More importantly, even if mankind were entirely the cause of global warming, how would you curb it without radically restructuring society? Essentially, supposing the hysteria is entirely valid, and you were really serious about reversing global warming, you would have to impose not only driving bans, but a host of other activities that characterize a modern, advanced economy. We would essentially have to return to an agricultural society to some degree. The sheer vastness, scope, and dependence on those things that are in one way or another harmful to the environment are well beyond the scope of simple emissions standards. That’s a start. But it doesn’t even begin to deal with reversing global warming if at the same time other nations such as China and India with their billions of people are now moving on up on the economic ladder and consuming more.

The reality is that mankind rules the earth. I wish this were something that Christians and secular “humanists” could agree on. What after all is a humanist in the first place if they can't place humans above their dwelling? And, in practice most self-respecting humanists agree with this. But you will always have left wing university professors carving out their own niche and preaching about mother earth. We are to respect, nurture, and cherish the environment. But leaders are also charged with being realistic and doing the best for all involved. My hunch is that this proposal will be stripped down over time as competing interests in Congress become known. I also don’t feel it’s a hugely radical proposal since the auto industry has been moving in the direction of increasing emissions standards and MPG efficiency for at least several years now. I personally drive a Civic Hybrid, which gets between 42 and 45 MPG, and can attest to the financial benefit of having a car that doesn’t guzzle gas.

Unfortunately, I think Obama tends to govern with policies that could be from an average university professor. They sound good in theory. In practice, theory is a little more complicated. Things are never as simple as “see a problem: regulate it. There, problem solved.” If only life were that straightforward and problems could be resolved in that way.

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