The end of the SUV

George Will

11/28/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Environmentalism, which is sometimes a subcategory of moral exhibitionism, now is the faith of some clerics asking ``What would Jesus drive?" These divines (BEG ITAL)know he would not drive any of the sport utility vehicles (SUVs) that will be about 52 percent of the new vehicles bought this year by American sinners. Opponents of SUVs are nothing if not intellectually nimble. The "WWJD?" preachers say SUVs are polluting God's creation. Others say SUVs harm the war against terrorism because they burn too much gasoline, thereby benefiting oil-exporting Middle East regimes that support terrorism. And critics have said SUVs are unfairly safe because, being big and heavy, they protect passengers in crashes with the sort of smaller vehicles that environmentalists want to shoehorn Americans into. The "WWJD?" clerics--who think Christianity is not just good news, it also is good scientific and economic policy analysis--favor stricter federal fuel efficiency standards. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program, begun in 1975 after the OPEC oil embargo, required each manufacturer's fleet to have a sales-weighted miles per gallon average of 19 by 1978, increasing to 27.5 by 1985, where it remains today. In March, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., proposed a 50 percent increase in CAFE standards for cars and light trucks, which include SUVs. The Senate rejected the measure, 62-38. Andrew N. Kleit, professor of energy and environmental economics at Penn State, writing in Regulation magazine, explains why much stricter standards would be environmentally and economically harmful. Foreign manufacturers regard the fines imposed for failure to meet CAFE standards as a tax, which they routinely pay. But U.S. manufacturers, fearing civil damages and stockholder suits, comply. Much stiffer standards would force U.S. manufacturers to reduce the large-vehicle component of their fleet mix. The result? A scarcity of domestic SUVs. American consumers would buy more foreign SUVs. The mix of vehicles on America's roads would change less than advocates of tougher CAFE standards assume. More stringent standards would decrease the per-mile cost of driving. Kleit says, ``The latest estimates are that for every 10 percent increase in fuel efficiency, people increase their driving by 2 percent." Hence increased CAFE standards would increase the number of miles driven, and perhaps the amount of emissions. Furthermore, tougher CAFE standards would increase the cost of cars, while decreasing the attractiveness to consumers of the mix of cars for sale. These would be disincentives for owners to trade in their older cars. The result? Less fuel-efficient cars on the roads longer. SUVs trigger the anti-automobile reflex among some liberals, who seem to resent the emancipation of the masses from dependence on government (public transportation). CAFE standards, like much of the environmentalists' agenda, advance modern liberalism's agenda of expanding government supervision of personal choices. That agenda makes many environmentalists and liberals resistant to good environmental news. Writing in The Brookings Review, Gregg Easterbrook says: ``Arguably the greatest postwar achievement of the U.S. government and of the policy community is ever-cleaner air and water, accomplished amidst population and economic growth." The Clinton administration's Council on Environmental Quality noted that between 1976 and 1997, population increased more than 25 percent, GDP more than doubled, vehicle-miles traveled grew about 125 percent--and air and water became much cleaner. Thanks to better technology and sensible regulations, today's new cars produce less than 1 percent of the emissions produced by 1970 cars. In the 1980s, Los Angeles averaged 70 ``stage one" ozone warnings a year. Los Angeles has not has such a warning for two years. Yet instead of taking deserved bows for their contribution to such progress, many environmentalists encourage doomsday thinking, partly because, as Easterbrook writes: ``Environmental lobbyists intent on raising money have a stake in spinning everything in alarming terms. Everyone is aware that corporate lobbyists have financial stakes in the positions they advocate. Why the same isn't understood about environmental lobbyists numbers among the small mysteries of our moment. And when environmental lobbyists depict all news as bad, most of the media reflexively echo this line." As to the "WWJD?" clerics' question, Jesus reportedly arrived in Jerusalem on a fuel-guzzling and high-pollution conveyance, a donkey. For millennia, before automobiles arrived to offend liberals, quadrupeds ruled the streets. A century ago in fragrant New York City, the healthiest of the 150,000 horses each put up to 25 pounds of manure each day onto the streets, to the delight of swarms of flies, or in stables--most blocks had one--filled with urine-soaked hay. In dry weather, traffic pounded manure to dust that penetrated noses and houses. Then automobiles, and especially SUVs, spoiled paradise.