Seppuku for the U.S. Auto Industry - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Seppuku for the U.S. Auto Industry

New cars are pretty green — hybrid or not.

Thanks to chemical exhaust scrubbers (catalytic converters), the precision of electronic fuel injection and computer-controlled engine management systems, less than 5 percent of the tailpipe exhaust of a new/late model car is other than water vapor and carbon dioxide — up till now considered by both chemistry and the law a harmless, inert gas.

But there’s the rub.

Global warming advocates claim that motor vehicles are contributing to rising world temperatures and want to have carbon dioxide re-classified as a “pollutant” subject to EPA (or state level) regulation under vehicle emissions control laws. They’ve just won a major court battle, too. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision this spring, ruled that that EPA must re-evaluate whether carbon dioxide should be considered an “exhaust emission” — and regulated accordingly. The majority opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who said (in part) that the “harms associated with climate change are serious and well-recognized… .”

But while “climate change” (and specifically, a warming trend in average global temperatures) is one thing, human-caused climate change is arguably another thing entirely. It’s quite a leap to go from the former to the latter — and absent scientific proof that human activity does, in fact, cause “climate change,” it might be worth reconsidering whether such draconian steps are justified. Because unlike earlier efforts to clean up vehicle exhaust emissions with technology and more efficient engine designs, the only way to reduce carbon dioxide output is to burn less fuel.


That will means smaller engines — and smaller vehicles. There’s no way to get around it. Burning a gallon of gas results in the creation of a set amount of CO2 that cannot be “converted” into some other compound in the way that catalytic converters chemically transform harmful compounds into harmless ones. And the volume of CO2 created is such that it cannot be stored or “sequestered” as the vehicle is driven (unlike modern diesel engines, which use particulate traps to capture the soot that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere).

For domestic automakers — already reeling from the effects of exorbitant health care and pension “legacy costs” — an EPA diktat that effectively outlaws the larger vehicles they specialize in (and which remain one of the few segments where they’ve been able to retain market share and make a profit) could be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. The mainline Japanese automakers — who specialize in smaller cars — are much better positioned to absorb such a blow. If it seems like the early ’70s all over again, you’re not alone in so thinking. We (or at least our leaders in Congress) seem to have an instinct for national economic suicide when it comes to passing laws that cripple our own manufacturing base while giving huge artificial advantages to foreign competitors.

MEANWHILE, IT’S DEBATABLE whether laws requiring the auto industry to build smaller engines and smaller vehicles would even succeed at reducing the net output of CO2 from motor vehicles. As has happened previously in the case of federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates, there may be unintended consequences in using legislative/regulatory fiat to try to alter market dynamics. For one, people may simply drive more. After all, there would be every incentive to do so. This is precisely what happened with CAFE; today, the average driver puts 12,000-15,000 miles on his vehicle annually. In part, this can be attributed to the fact that modern cars, relative to similar-in-size cars of the past, are more fuel-efficient. It’s cheaper to drive farther than it once was — and so people drive their cars more often and for greater distances. Nationally and individually, average fuel consumption is higher than ever — notwithstanding CAFE standards.

Arguably, in spite of them. It’s not hard to understand why. But Congress doesn’t see it.

Whether you subscribe to human-caused global warming theory or not, what is the point of using regulatory power to compel the automakers to build smaller engines and smaller vehicles — if those vehicles just end up being driven more? Whether it’s a V-8 SUV that sees 8,000 miles of use annually vs. a compact with a four-cylinder that’s driven 16,000 miles, the net total output of carbon dioxide may be about the same. Perhaps more.

We’ll just have forced our domestic auto industry to commit seppuku in the process.

However, the broader issue remains the question of global warming itself — and specifically, whether human action, such as the operation of motor vehicles, is causing it. While climate scientists agree about the warming trend, there is no certainty as to the cause. Some believe it is a natural, cyclical phenomenon; others that recent upticks in global temperatures may be the result of increased solar activity. Still others believe industrial activity is the cause — or perhaps a contributing factor. But the answer is far from definitive. Passing laws and issuing potentially strangling regulations on the basis of speculation — especially when it is as politically charged as is the issue of human-caused global warming — makes about as much sense as taking that homeless-looking guy with his “The End is Near” cardboard sign off the street and putting him in front of the controls of a 747 at 40,000 feet.

In either case, the end result is going to be ugly.

Eric Peters
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