Commentary

California’s Dreamin’

From the birthplace of fads, the place that prides itself on being “the first” to do whatever, comes the first law to restrict emissions of carbon dioxide from cars to slow global warming. It passed by one vote in the California Senate last month. In essence, this global warming law (AB 1493) mandates significant increases in fuel efficiency.

Californians seem to “care” more about the environment than the rest of us mere Americans. They care so much, for example, that years ago they mandated that 10 percent of new cars in 2003 be “zero emission” automobiles. When no electric car (which really does “emit” from the power plant down the road) that was useful and salable appeared, Californians rolled back the legal compliance date to 2009. Caring does not necessarily imply sincerity.

It’s debatable whether Gov. Gray Davis will sign the global warming bill. If he does, the many forces allayed against it — auto makers, many energy companies, and many drivers — may desert to Republican William Simon, who is already running close to Davis in November’s election. If Davis doesn’t sign, he may gain politically. After all, will the hyper-greens that are so abundant in the Golden State vote for the libertarian-style Simon?

Davis may also veto the bill, saying he that he wants something stronger, and, thus, keep the greens. “Stronger,” as in a bill that really does something about greenhouse emissions.

That’s because AB 1493 merely says that California will reduce emissions by 2009, not by how much. It also pretty much proscribes how this is to be accomplished, at least as far as automobiles are concerned. According to the text, it can’t be implemented by increasing energy taxes, by differentially taxing SUV gas-hogs, or by reducing vehicle weight.

This is California dreamin’ at its most lurid. If weight reduction, SUV reduction, and taxes cannot be mandated, this leaves some unspecified technological fix. About the only one out there is the hybrid gas-electric automobile.

California is remarkably foolish to rely on such technology for much in the way of energy savings. The only hybrid that can get terrific fuel economy is the two-seater Honda Insight, and that’s only when driven in a non-California way. My Insight, driven on the rolling country roads of Virginia, has averaged 70.5 mpg over its virtually flawless 34,000 miles. But my sister-in-law’s, stuck in Southern California conga lines, or racing through Riverside, is stuck at 51.9 mpg. Demand? Honda’s only sold around 10,000 in two-and-a-half years.

Many think that’s because Insight only holds two, but the efficiency price for a back seat is dear. The larger Toyota Prius averages around 45 mpg in the real world, about 15 percent more than people get from the less expensive Echo platform on which it is built. Honda’s new hybrid Civic, with its silky-smooth CVT transmission gets about the same. But there are plenty of owners who can’t seem to budge that technologically sophisticated wonder out of the high 30s.

You could do the math instead of writing legislation. If the United States increased the fuel efficiency of its cars and trucks by 15 percent — and kept the number of cars constant (which is impossible) — the net reduction in emissions would be 8/1000’s of the total global human contribution, which might be good for a 50-year reduction of 0.007ºF of global warming. California’s contribution under this legislation would be about 1/10 of that, or seven ten-thousandths of a degree. In other words, California is dreamin’ if it thinks hybrid technology is going to reduce global warming.

Less dreamy economists and climatologists will tell you that any attempt to reduce emissions to the point at which they have a demonstrable affect on global warming requires some type of major tax, hidden or explicit. In fact, that’s what largely killed the Kyoto Protocol in the Bush administration. It discovered that if every nation on earth fulfilled Kyoto’s dictates (which, for the U.S. would mean a drop in carbon dioxide emissions of about 30 percent, beginning in 2008), the amount of “saved” global warming would be 0.13ºF in the next 50 years — but the required energy taxes would be huge.

It’s obvious that California’s greenhouse law is a sham. And when it doesn’t work, well, they’ll just roll back the date a few years. Washington isn’t that far behind on this one. The current energy bill being debated by Congress also purports to reduce greenhouse emissions, and it will be equivalently ineffectual unless it dramatically raises the price of gasoline, kicks soccer moms out of their SUV’s, and encourages smaller cars that will get creamed by the behemoths remaining on the road. That is not the road to re-election. That’s California dreamin’.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of “The Satanic Gases.”