Editor’s Note: Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Rather than saving people money in gas costs, cleaning up the air, or dealing with the climate crisis, the Trump administration announced its plan to roll back automobile fuel efficiency standards – proposing to freeze the policy in a few short years.
Since cars and trucks are the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, the existing regulations are crucial in the effort to stop the climate crisis. Limiting pollution for cars is also important for human health, because dirty air from cars is bad for all of us. And by increasing the distance a car can travel on a tank of gas, the existing policy will save Americans money at the pump.
In short, the existing standards benefit everyone in the country.
The administration’s plan to roll back the policy is riddled with holes, both legal and factual. For decades, California has had the legal right to set its own fuel efficiency standards under the 1970 Clean Air Act, but the Trump administration wants to change that. It’s not clear if the federal government has the right to. As a result, some inside the administration are concerned Trump’s proposal won’t hold up in court. The administration is also claiming that changing the policy will save lives by reducing road incidents and deaths. But their math doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Most experts are convinced that changing the rule will actually cost lives in car accidents.
We know the public will lose from this rollback. But who wins? Automakers, yes. But many carmakers are skeptical of the new plan, fearing regulatory uncertainty if complex legal battles drag on for years. Many carmakers would rather know what the rules are and comply.
Instead, big oil companies are the true winners in Trump’s plan to roll back this policy. Under the new plan, they can continue to sell large volumes of their dangerous and expensive commodity for gas-guzzling cars.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see oil companies getting their way on energy policy. This administration is stacked with former fossil fuel lobbyists. According to Bloomberg, some of the largest oil companies, including Marathon and Koch, have been quietly lobbying the administration to roll back Obama-era standards. Like a favorite child, the industry has gotten its way for a century. The history of climate inaction is the history of oil companies stalling.
Over the past 30 years, fossil fuel companies have waged a war on addressing climate change. They began with an organized effort to deny climate science. Historians, sociologists, foundations and investigative journalists have written detailed accounts that show the playbook these companies used.
To sway politicians and the public to their view, fossil fuel companies had a variety of tools in their quiver: money, ideas and relationships. From the late 1990s until at least 2014, they funded deniers who spun false tales of shoddy science. And their reports did not end up on the shelf collecting dust. These climate deniers were effective, getting their ideas into the media and even presidents’ speeches.
Fossil fuel companies, by sowing doubt and driving division, helped bring partisanship into the climate change conversation.
Meanwhile, these same companies were internally relying on climate science to plan their operations and investments. Exxon, for example, worked diligently to understand the problem while publicly claiming in 1999 that climate models were “completely unproven.” In 1998, Shell ran a simulation exercise featuring a giant climate-caused hurricane on the East Coast. In Shell’s imagined scenario, after all the destruction, the government came calling to demand they pick up the tab.
These fossil fuel companies knew they were being irresponsible. They knew they were walking out without paying the bill.
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Whenever the government came close to addressing the growing climate crisis, fossil fuel companies were there to claim the science wasn’t settled.
When it comes to blocking climate action, we know who the culprit was. We have the smoking gun. Fossil fuel companies spend millions every year lying about the truth and pulling the Republican Party away from acting in the US public’s interest.
The harmful consequences of fossil fuel companies’ stalling tactics are already visible. The planet has warmed over 1½ degrees Fahrenheit over the past 150 years. A quick glance at the daily news supplies plenty of evidence that climate change is already costing societies money and lives. Heatwaves around the planet burn hotter and hang around for weeks. Floods from unprecedented rainfall displace millions. Deadly fires rage across California, Greece and Siberia.
A recent estimate suggests that at the pace we are on, climate change could cost 15% to 25% of global GDP by 2100. Fossil fuel companies’ unpaid bills are large and growing.
But rather than address the problem, the Trump administration is backsliding. Its plan to roll back limitations on dangerous pollution from automobiles is the exact opposite of what the United States needs.
With the costs of climate change mounting, these same companies have moved on from denying the crisis is happening to ensuring they won’t have to bear the costs. They are looking to Congress to pass a law that would make them immune from paying for climate impacts. If this happens, the public will end up paying the check.
This isn’t what Congress should be doing.
Congress should be passing new efficiency standards for cars through a law that keeps everyone in this country safer from dirty air and dangerous climate change. If they acted, the Trump administration would not be able to make this harmful decision.
In the midterm elections this fall, we will see whether the public can elect a slate of politicians brave enough to truly take on the fossil fuel industry for the first time. The polluters should pay for the damages they knowingly wrought.