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November 17, 2008

No Need to Sacrifice John Dingell to Make Progress on Global Warming


Word came last week that Barack Obama’s transition team was combing through the executive orders of the current administration, looking for politically driven executive orders to overturn. It’s expected that these will constitute early efforts by the Obama Administration to move on important issues that might otherwise get the short shrift with economic problems looming so severely.


One of those is global warming, which probably would be on the front burner if millions didn’t still fear losing their jobs.


If it holds true, the Obama Administration is likely to overturn rewrites of how to enforce the Endangered Species Act. When the changes were originally announced, an Obama spokesman said the then-candidate opposed them.


Those changes were originally fueled by objections to using the act to regulate greenhouse gases. The future plight of the polar bear – ordered protected as a threatened species suffering habitat loss – twanged the heartstrings of the American people. Its defenders sued to protect it, arguably as an end-around to force the federal government to regulate greenhouse gases.


It wasn’t the Bush Administration’s first defeat in the court system on greenhouse gases. Its Environmental Protection Agency also lost and was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as pollutants. The EPA has since continued to drag its feet, following signals by President Bush that he intended to do nothing about global warming for the rest of his presidency.


If Obama directs his new EPA administrator to craft a scheme to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and overturns the Bush rule on the Endangered Species Act, what would emerge as the new U.S. policy on global warming would have one primary father – Congressman John Dingell of Michigan.


Dingell, a Detroit-area Democrat, today is better known as the Dean of the House of Representatives, and next year will become the longest serving member in its history. He’s known as a cunning legislator, and chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.


You’d think that someone who’s authored two of the nation’s most important and far-reaching pieces of environmental legislation would have green street cred. Not so. Dingell is being challenged for his chairmanship by California Democrat Henry Waxman because his challenger says he is stifling climate change efforts.


Waxman is said to have the soft support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who could tie support for the auto industry bailout to Dingell’s release of the committee.


One of their chief complaints is that Dingell has represented the auto industry too well, and has held up increased fuel economy standards through the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) scheme.


There are lots of things you could say about CAFE, but one of the things you can’t say about it is that it has fulfilled its original intention. CAFE was originally conceived in the wake of the oil embargo of the early 1970s. Since then, the United States has become progressively more dependent on foreign oil.


This failure became more acute in the 1990s, when the American consumer rewarded Detroit’s auto makers for dodging CAFE standards in offering horribly inefficient, gas-guzzling SUVs.

Earlier this decade, when Ford tried to build a line of highly efficient SUVs, the efforts tanked for lack of interest from consumers.


Like all long-term policy failures, CAFE has its own attendant set of devotees who believe that the solution to policy failure is to simply shout louder. Rather than proposing a scheme that attacks the problem by encouraging sustainable demand for more efficient cars, its supporters today want higher standards and someone in the Energy and Commerce Committee chair who will punish Detroit for dragging its feet.


Whether this will prove a successful route to addressing global warming is anyone’s guess. But it would be mightily ironic if Dingell was pushed aside for stifling action on global warming just as laws the Michigan Democrat authored became the nation’s biggest steps to date on climate policy.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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