02:49 - Source: CNN
Avlon: Don't listen to what he says, look at what he does

Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump took a quick break from his Los Angeles fundraising junket to announce that his administration would seek to revoke California’s ability to control its own auto mileage standards.

Jeff Yang

This isn’t just bad policy — killing a unique federal waiver that has helped to do more to reduce transportation emissions than virtually any other legislative act in history. It’s also hypocrisy of the highest order, given the Republican Party’s long-professed belief in letting states set their own destinies.

Indeed Trump’s decision is devastating for the Republican Party’s emphasis on “states’ rights” — although it’s notable that this Republican plank is only invoked when Democrats are trying to protect progress, and not when, say, the Texas School Board decides to incorporate creationism alongside evolution in their science textbooks, knowing full well that the decision will reshape how textbooks are written across the nation.

California’s right to manage its emissions benchmarks is nearly half a century old, dating back to the first federal legislation designed to preserve public health and the natural environment by protecting air quality: The landmark Clean Air Act of 1970. Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, has called it “the most effective piece of legislation Congress has ever passed.”

But for California, the Act actually arrived at the tail end of a decade marked by the adoption of clean air legislation, inspired in no small part by the chronic smog crisis being experienced by Los Angeles — the very city in which Trump chose to announce his stunning environmental rollback.

In the mid-century, Los Angeles was notorious for its halo of brown toxic atmospheric funk, a consequence of both its abundance of automobiles and its geography, sitting in a basin surrounded by ozone- and particulate-trapping mountains. Air pollution levels were so bad that other Southern California cities tried to bring lawsuits against Los Angeles for damages from its toxic smog “exports.”

It’s very hard to get individuals to voluntarily change their short-term personal behavior for collective long-term benefit. The challenge gets exponentially harder when you’re trying to get entire cities to change their behavior to benefit other, nearby cities. The only real solution is to force wholesale change — that is to say, regulation.

Motivated by the decaying situation in Los Angeles, California enacted the most rigorous air pollution laws in the nation. These proved to be so successful in reining in out-of-control emissions that when the Clean Air Act came along, state officials expressed concern that it might end up dragging California backwards to a national lowest common denominator.

As a result, the state demanded, and received, a unique exception to the Act, granting it a waiver to set its own standards — so long as they were superior to those required by the Act.

These standards don’t just keep Los Angeles from sinking back beneath a sulfurous cloud. Thirteen other states have voluntarily embraced California’s benchmarks as well, plus the District of Columbia, states that represent nearly a quarter of the US vehicle fleet, including Washington, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the President’s home state of New York.

Trump has claimed that his new action on California’s emissions would enhance safety, as Americans buy new cars to replace older ones, while boosting job growth. “Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business,” he tweeted.

But US automakers don’t necessarily welcome the change, because America now makes up a fraction of global auto sales, purchasing about 17 million light vehicles annually out of the 80 million sold around the world. China buys about 24 million cars per year, while Europe buys around 15 million.

While Trump is moving American standards backwards, China and the EU are poised to embrace emissions standards that soar past California’s within the next few years. California’s rules demand that cars in this state hit an average 50 mpg efficiency by 2026. The EU is requiring an average of 57 mpg by 2027 — and 92 mpg by 2030.

China has set a target of 54.5 average mpg by 2025, and in 2017, the country’s vice minister of industry and information announced that plans were in place aimed at a total phaseout of combustion-engine vehicles for the world’s largest auto market by as soon as 2040.

Trump’s short-sighted policy might produce near-term stimulus, but it is almost certainly going to make American automakers less competitive globally and with less incentive to innovate for an imminent electric vehicle future.

Trump’s policy concerns have never really extended beyond his own term in office, and history shows that he’s unlikely to be convinced otherwise. If California’s hard-won status as a leader in pushing environmental standards forward is going to be preserved, it’ll be because of other Republicans, if any still exist with conscience and integrity.

As Dave Calkins, former regional chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Programs Branch for the southwestern states, has pointed out, the Clean Air Act was passed under Richard Nixon. “It was a bipartisan effort — the Republican Party was known as quite conservationist,” he said in a roundtable interview of EPA alumni. “Under the Nixon administration we passed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act [and] the Clean Water Act of ’72.”

Ultimately, California is large and influential enough to find ways to preserve the integrity of its emissions qualities against Trump’s presidential sabotage — with tax incentives, fleet purchase policies, and the like. But the implications of Trump’s increasingly capricious and autocratic behavior are larger than emissions standards alone and should worry everyone — especially members of a party that once upon a time called every presidential action an example of “executive overreach.”

But that, of course, was when Barack Obama was in the White House.