Lifestyles Left and Right

Picking on Greenhouse Gassers

A new offensive in the McCain-Lieberman war on the SUV.

By 7.13.04

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It's not sporting to hit a big target -- but it sure is easy. Maybe that's why politicians in Europe and America have put SUVs in the crosshairs. The heavy luxury sedans with big V-8 engines favored by the elites run silent and deep -- avoiding finger-pointing social opprobrium and punitive legislation. But SUVs -- which bring size and powerful engines within reach of the masses -- aren't so invisible.

Enraged that the other 95 percent of the socio-economic strata have access to machines larger and more capable than the Toyota Echos and Geo Prizms they'd like to force everyone else to drive -- elites in government and the media are working overtime to slay the SUV, portraying it as a sheet-metal satan responsible for "global warming" and all manner of social ills.

In Europe, pols are trying to impose massive targeted tax hikes that would make SUVs all but unaffordable to anyone without "Lord" in front of his name; the mayor of London has openly called SUV drivers "complete idiots" -- and in Paris, efforts are afoot to ban SUVs from using the roads entirely. Here in America, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have been attempted to achieve the same thing via their so-called Climate Stewardship Act -- which would curtail the ability of the auto industry to build large SUVs and make ownership of the few that remain much more costly. Although the bill was voted down last fall, new efforts are underway, including by religious leaders, among them the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to pressure Senate leaders to reintroduce the legislation.

Limits on SUVs would be achieved by a clever end run that doesn't target SUVs specifically or openly -- just "greenhouse gasses" like carbon dioxide, which would have to be reduced to 2000 levels by 2010. But the last remaining major byproduct of internal combustion is -- you guessed it -- carbon dioxide. Advances in pollution control technology have cleaned-up almost all the harmful stuff that used to be produced by automobile engines, things like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX). These are the compounds that contributed to poor air quality -- and smog. But carbon dioxide (CO2) is a harmless, inert gas. It is not a "pollutant" in the sense that VOCs and NOX emissions are. And as far as "global warming" goes, water vapor is known to be a much more potent "greenhouse" gas.

In any case, emissions of CO2 from natural sources such as erupting volcanoes dwarf man-made output from all sources -- including heavy industry. Motor vehicles produce a small fraction of the total output of man-made CO2 and SUVs -- which only account for about half the vehicles on the road -- a fraction of that fraction. Even if every SUV currently on the road were to be forcibly retired tomorrow, the net reduction in total carbon dioxide output from all sources would be minuscule -- less than 2 percent overall. And that's if you buy into the reality of human-caused "global warming" -- by no means a proven thing. Many scientists believe that the Earth experiences naturally occurring fluctuations in climate over which man has little control. The important point is the science is by no means settled -- despite the agit-prop being spoon fed by special interests to such as Messrs. McCain and Lieberman -- and then regurgitated by them in front of TV cameras. Neither man has any scientific background or credentials to weigh in on the issue; their knowledge of the subject is obviously superficial and politically slanted.

The bottom line is that the restrictions and disincentives being conjured up to make SUV owners sweat won't do much for "global warming" -- real or not. But they will cost everyone -- not just SUV owners -- wads of cash. Though "energy taxes" haven't been mentioned by Messrs. McCain and Lieberman, that's precisely what the Climate Stewardship Act would give us -- to the tune of $106 billion annually, according to the nonpartisan Energy Information Agency. That's a good deal more than the "modest impact" claimed by McCain when he touts this legislation.

"Deep Impact" is more like it, because it would put the American economy in a hole and reduce the Western world's standard of living as effectively as an asteroid from outer space crashing into Manhattan.

Of course, guys like McCain and Lieberman can push this sort of thing because they, personally, won't be affected. Rich and powerful senators can afford $5 per gallon fuel -- and a couple hundred bucks per year in energy taxes. No one will be taking away their V-8 S-Class Mercedes-Benzes and BMW sedans, though these suck just as much gas and spew just as much C02 as any SUV.

What apparently bothers these fellows the most is not the "greenhouse gasses" but who gets to emit them.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.