Columnist Marty Nathan: Local officials, activists counter national policies

  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt pauses while speaking as he testifies before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 26. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/2/2018 8:02:58 PM

It is harder to figure out what not to write about in climate news than to find important subjects.

The onslaught is devastating though there are glimmers of hope on several fronts. Anyone who is not planning their actions around the 2018 elections and the ways in this moment to oppose the anti-human, anti-biosphere offensive should rethink her agenda for the next six months.

Probably the most destructive environmental plan by the Trump administration to date will be sent to the White House for approval in the coming days. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) are jointly preparing to weaken the Obama-era stringent Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards that effectively limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks.

EPA head Scott Pruitt said in early April that the Obama regulations to increase fuel efficiency for 2022-2025 models was excessive and would be revised. CAFE was established after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries oil crisis in the 1970s made fuel efficiency necessary and desirable financially. Standards were set at the maximum feasible levels each model year and the DOT was required to enforce compliance. They were strengthened under the Bush administration in 2007 again to help consumers respond to soaring fuel prices brought about by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because of the leverage gained by Barack Obama’s bailout of the United States automakers, the new administration was able to accelerate this push to use fewer gallons of gas per mile driven, which translated into less carbon dioxide and other pollutants per mile from the tailpipe. It also allowed the state of California to set its own air quality standards.

The result: Fuel efficiency standards were simplified and strengthened, and our air got cleaner. Passenger vehicles were on the way to attaining average values of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. At the time, the EPA calculated that the measure would prevent more than six billion metric tons of greenhouse gases — more than one year’s worth of total U.S. carbon emissions — over the lifetime of the vehicles sold in model years 2012 through 2025.

But then three things happened. First, low fuel prices and the Obama-induced recovery from the Great Recession led to increased vehicle sales and more miles driven. Second, Donald Trump was elected. Third, the industry in 2017, smelling a profit to be made again from bigger gas guzzlers, spent $49 million on lobbying, the most it has spent since it received the billions in bailout in 2008.

The result: Pruitt, whose agency now seems to have transformed to Environmental Destruction and Corporate Protection, has decided with the automakers that the retooling necessary for compliance with the standards is too expensive, though it will save car-buyers $1.7 trillion over the life of the new cars in question. That accounting does not include the billions that will be avoided in medical costs and lost work and school days for those (think children at Springfield’s Gerena School with Interstate 91 literally passing overhead) not exposed to that excess transportation pollution.

Inside Climate News assesses the CAFE standard retreat as even more damaging to public health and the climate than the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Clean Power Plan. We are stopping coal use anyway.

But the economics of transportation mean an increase in its impact on emissions, so that vehicle emissions now surpass that of the electricity and industrial sector. We are in a climate emergency and we must cut greenhouse gas emissions immediately, in transportation as well as in electricity generation. California will be fighting this in the courts. Massachusetts should join that effort, and our supportive voices should be heard in the streets and at the ballot box. This is a make-or-break issue.

The good news? From far away: the warm mutual embrace by Presidents Kim and Moon in Panmunjom, possibly leading to peace, denuclearization and demilitarization of the Korean peninsula. Whenever I feel the crush of despair for our ignorance and irresponsibility for our future, I bring that picture to mind.

To accomplish an end to the ongoing human and environmental destruction from the more-than-60-year war there and the almost inconceivable threat of nuclear conflict is a feat that evokes a huge sigh of relief and hope. Way to go, guys!

Locally, there has been another joining of forces by Amherst, Pelham and Northampton to promote municipal electric aggregation. The plan is called Community Choice Energy and it would allow the three communities to collectively choose from where and how our energy is produced. Thus, we could evaluate demand in our communities, tailor energy efficiency efforts where they are needed, and procure local and renewable energy that would decrease emissions and increase local jobs.

Thank you to our local officials who are making this possible and to the activists who have devoted their time and personal energy to spearheading it. It is a model for a country increasingly chained to policies with benefit only for the corporate wealthy.

We should stick to such models and prove their worth as we work to terminate the oligarchic stranglehold in Washington.

Dr. Marty Nathan lives in Northampton and is a physician at BaystateBrightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and drinks coffee with She may be reached at

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