President Obama deserves credit for doing more during his first month to combat climate change than his predecessor accomplished in eight years. Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward on a request by California and other states for authority to tighten automobile emissions — which account for about one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions.
The move is designed to force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars and reduce the gases that contribute to global warming. Obama has the right goal, but the federal government should not be delegating this task to the states.
The states, in their defense, took action in response to the failure by Washington to lead on such a defining national issue. California's law would require automakers to cut emissions by nearly a third by 2016. That is four years ahead of the federal schedule. The changes to fuel-efficiency under the California model also helped prod the 2007 federal law requiring that new cars and trucks meet 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase in fuel efficiency. The 17 states, including Florida, that adopted or are considering California's rules, bring formidable heft to the table. They account for about half the nation's auto sales. By nudging the EPA to approve California's request, Obama is fashioning a national standard through the collective clout of the states.
If Obama is determined to take this approach, the Florida Legislature should approve the standards and make the Sunshine State part of the coalition. But a national strategy would be far better than having individual states go off on their own. Last summer's record gasoline prices sent commuters rushing to mass transit and consumers looking for smaller cars. The American auto industry, which for years resisted higher fuel-economy standards, has finally gotten the message. The Big Three are busy switching production from gas-guzzling SUVs to smaller cars, electric hybrids and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The last thing the struggling industry needs right now is a hodgepodge of regulation by individual states over mileage and tailpipe emissions. A federal standard that regulates when and how manufacturers phase in cleaner cars would achieve the same goals while giving the auto industry some sense of surety. It also makes more sense to fight one fight at the federal level rather than dozens at the state level. Experts have already debunked the industry's claim that cleaner cars would be cost-prohibitive; automakers argued the same about seat belts and air bags. Resolving this in Washington would deny automakers the chance to sidetrack the issue in legislatures across the country. Climate change also is a global concern involving international protocols and treaties — matters well beyond the purview of state lawmakers. Obama set the right tone, but he needs to bring this policy priority back to the federal level. The states can always play a role carrying it out.