A bill careening down the legislative turnpike in California threatens Americans' freedom of mobility everywhere. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Assembly Bill 1058 has passed both houses of the California legislature and is back in the assembly for a final vote. If it becomes law, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) will be required to mandate "maximum feasible" reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new cars and light trucks. Proponents claim the bill is needed to protect California from global warming, allegedly caused by manmade emissions of CO2 and other "greenhouse" gases.
Opponents — who include all the auto companies, the autoworkers union, and the California farm bureau — warn that AB 1058 is a regulatory sneak attack on America's best-selling vehicles: sedans, pickups, minivans, and, especially, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). They are right.
Big cars like SUVs burn lots of gas and, thus, emit lots of CO2. That fact alone makes SUVs the key target under this legislation. Environmental lobbying groups routinely bash SUVs in their fulminations against global warming, and such groups have lined up in droves behind AB 1058. CARB, for its part, has a long history of trying to limit consumer choice — for example, by mandating the production of costly, cramped, utility-deficient electric cars.
Naturally, AB 1058's supporters deny CARB would ever use the power to regulate CO2 to suppress the market for SUVs. But virtually any exercise of that power would have that effect.
There is no device that can be installed in a car to control its CO2 emissions. Regulators thus have only two basic ways to implement AB 1058. One is to ration gasoline through new motor fuel or mileage taxes. The other is to ration cars through fuel economy mandates, which decrease vehicle size, or technology mandates, which increase vehicle cost. Rationing of either type can wreck the market for large, low gas mileage vehicles.
A recent report ("Tech 3: Petroleum Reduction Options") issued jointly by CARB and the California Energy Commission reveals that both agencies are exploring various rationing schemes. Some of the measures under consideration include:
· Increasing gasoline taxes another 50 cents per gallon.
· Imposing a new two-cents per mile tax on vehicle miles traveled.
· Reducing vehicle "mass" to boost fuel economy.
· Charging extra fees up to $3,500 for high CO2-emitting vehicles.
· Mandating production of hybrid gas-electric cars under CARB's "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle" program. Sticker price per vehicle: $9,500 to $14,700 more than a comparable gasoline-powered car.
Such measures would massively restrict Californians' mobility and freedom of choice.
The response to such criticism, of course, is that we must "do something" to stop global warming. But how serious a threat is global warming, and is AB 1058 an effective remedy against it?
Earth Island Institute, AB 1058's chief "sponsor," warns that California may experience "increased storms," "increased droughts and floods," and "severe disruption of agriculture," if lawmakers don't take urgent action to avert global warming. Such claims are pure speculation unsupported by scientific evidence. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report found "no long term trend" in tropical or sub-tropical storms. A U.S. Geological Survey study of 395 natural stream flows over a 50-period found decreased drought with no increase in flooding. Many experts, such as Robert Mendelsohn of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, believe warmer temperatures combined with more CO2 (plant food) in the atmosphere will boost crop yield in North America.
Supporters laud AB 1058 as a "first step" to more "comprehensive national and global policies" like the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. climate treaty that President Bush opposes and the U.S. Senate has not ratified. But Kyoto is a rotten deal for people and the planet.
As statistician Bjorn Lomborg explains in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Kyoto's energy-suppression policies would cost industrialized nations over $900 billion annually by 2050, yet the total amount of global warming avoided would be a hypothetical and undetectable 0.07 degrees Celsius. Kyoto is all economic pain for no environmental gain. Worse, Kyoto would divert vast resources from more urgent problems like indoor air pollution and waterborne diseases, which kill millions of women and children each year in developing countries.
If Kyoto is a gigantic swindle, then a down payment on Kyoto like AB 1058 is a bad investment. And if Kyoto's contribution to climate stabilization is inconsequential, then AB 1058's contribution is infinitesimal.
California is a trendsetter in automobile regulation, and AB 1058 supporters are already making plans to campaign for similar legislation in other states. Their strategy is to establish mini-Kyoto regulatory regimes in several key states, to demoralize, divide, and conquer Kyoto foes in Washington, D.C.
The good news is that the Kyoto Protocol is an unsustainable treaty. Free peoples will eventually reject policies that impose astronomical costs for miniscule or nonexistent benefits. But between the "first step" and the last straw, climate alarmism and energy rationing can do great harm to our economy, our liberties, and our public priorities.
California Governor Gray Davis has not said whether he will sign or veto AB 1058, even though Democrats overwhelmingly support and Republicans unanimously oppose the bill. If Davis signs, he will hand his GOP rival, William Simon Jr., a stick to beat him with in an election year. It will be clear to everyone that Davis cares more about bureaucrats and eco-activists than about soccer moms and autoworkers. It will be clear that Davis puts the interests of party ahead of people's right to purchase and enjoy the kinds of cars that best meet their needs.
Conversely, if Davis vetoes the bill, he will rob Simon of a key campaign issue. Davis will be able to claim credit for saving the people's SUVs. By thwarting the Kyoto agenda, such a wise decision will also confer a great and unexpected boon on California — and the Nation.