As he stood in the rose garden on May 19 with state governors and auto executives to announce a new deal that tightens automobile fuel-efficiency standards, Barack Obama took note of the glorious weather. "The sun is out because good things are happening," he said.
Many environmentalists who spent the eight years of the Bush Administration in the cold would agree. Obama announced tough new national standards for automobile emissions and fuel efficiency that essentially settled a long-running battle between environmentalists and the car industry in favor of the greens. Under the proposed rules, which would begin to take effect in 2012, new cars and trucks will need to have an average fuel efficiency of 35.5 m.p.g. (6.6 L/100 km) by 2016 almost 40% cleaner than they are today. The regulations would be the first national limit on U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions and could presage further action to curb climate change. "This is huge," says David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "This meets and exceeds all our expectations."
Obama assembled all the major players California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, GM CEO Fritz Henderson, Michigan Representative John Dingell some of whom are still locked in lawsuits over California's earlier attempts to pass its own stricter fuel-efficiency standards. (Under the Clean Air Act, the state has the right to implement auto-pollution regulations that are tougher than national laws, provided that the Environmental Protection Agency issues a waiver, which was denied under George W. Bush.) For Obama, the simple fact that these habitually warring parties were willing to come together on the new requirements was as important as the 1.8 billion bbl. of oil and 900 million metric tons of greenhouse gases the rules are expected to save. "In the past, an agreement such as this would have been considered impossible," he said. "What everyone here believes, even as views differ on many important issues, is that the status quo is no longer acceptable."
That said, it's easier to forge a historic consensus when the obstacle to change the U.S. auto industry is now basically a subsidiary of the Federal Government. And though the new regulations are long overdue even if U.S. cars in 2016 will be only about as efficient as European autos are now they're just a start. Despite the positive early signs from the White House, some greens still fret about the future and wonder whether Obama's preference for cooperation over confrontation means he will back away from the truly radical action needed to combat climate change.
Take the new efficiency standards. For years, U.S. automakers have fought tougher regulations by arguing that Americans tend to prefer larger, gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. That's not always true: when gas prices were at an all-time high last summer, sales of SUVs were down considerably, while hybrids flew off dealer lots. Since then, prices at the pump have dropped and so has the appetite for small cars. As long as the price of gas remains volatile, it's far from certain that Americans will buy the more efficient cars and trucks the new standards will require automakers to produce. In the long run, though, a gas tax that puts a floor on fuel prices may be the only way to break America's SUV addiction. But Obama has said he's not interested. "You need a price signal. Regulations alone won't do it," says Lester Lave, director of the Carnegie Mellon Green Design Initiative.
Even more important is the ongoing debate in Congress over carbon cap-and-trade legislation. Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey have hammered out a bill that would reduce U.S. carbon emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. It faces an uphill battle in Congress, opposed by nearly all Republicans and many Democrats from coal-dependent states. Pushing it through will require an act of political will, but while Obama has praised the controversial bill, some environmentalists complain the White House has done too little behind the scenes to defend it. "The world was hopeful that Obama would care about global warming, but he has been completely missing in action on this," says Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
Radford is not being entirely fair: Obama has increased alternative-energy funding to record levels and assembled a green team of advisers. They include his Energy Secretary, the Nobel Prize winning Steven Chu, who told me recently that "the climate-change problem is at least equal in magnitude" to World War II. He's right. And if Obama wants to win this war, he's going to have to fight, not just make peace.