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January 26th, 2009
05:21 PM ET

How many Americans does it take to change a lightbulb?

California and 13 other states would be permitted to set their emission standards under President Obama's plan.

California and 13 other states would be permitted to set their emission standards under President Obama's plan.

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

One of the most memorable quotes from Barack Obama came from a casual behind-the-scenes moment during the campaign. Candidate Obama, in an unguarded moment, recounted a question from a debate moderator who asked him what he’d personally done to go green. Mr. Obama’s frustration with the premise of this question was captured by Newsweek: “The truth is … we can’t solve global warming because I *#!@* changed light bulbs in my house,” said the candidate. “It’s because of something collective.”

For me, a guy who’s probably spent too much time calculating the costs and benefits of going compact fluorescent, I felt a little stupid hearing that. After all, everywhere you turn there’s another “Ten Tips to Green Your Life” list, which I often try to follow. Yet, there was candidate Obama, claiming that all the individual efforts that have captured the public’s imagination won’t make the necessary difference unless we act collectively.

And so, today, we see one of President Obama ‘s first efforts to get Americans performing in concert. He took a step towards handing the baton to California which, along with 13 other states, wants to require every car sold to get better mileage and produce fewer dirty emissions and to make it happen quickly. Get moving on California’s new standards, President Obama urged the Environmental Protection Agency. Given the size of the California car market, that would put enormous pressure on automakers to retool more quickly than they say they are able to at a cost they say they cannot afford.

The Obama Administration will have many questions to answer. One of the toughest is this: Will a government mandate for higher mileage cars make a substantial difference in reducing gas consumption? If our cars get 10 or 20 or 30 extra miles a gallon, will we collectively negate the impact by taking the liberty to increase the amount of driving we do? Or, in these horrible economic times, will it take a painful European-level gas tax to change our driving habits for good, reduce our global warming emissions, and increase our energy independence. The head of the largest auto dealership in America, Mike Jackson, of Autonation, has long advocated a gas tax as the most effective way to accomplish these goals.

On all these questions, the case of the Prius is important to keep in mind. According to the trade publication autonews.com, 14,785 Americans bought a Prius last July, the month that gas prices spiked over 4-dollars a gallon. Slightly more than one percent of all car sales. A mere drop in the national tank. Even more importantly, as gas prices have sunk to below 2-dollars a gallon, Prius sales have taken a disproportionate hit. Its share of total car sales have dropped by more than a third since the summer.

With the issue of climate change and energy independence growing more urgent by the day, Barack Obama has made clear he did not run for president to promote “10 Tips to Green Your Life.” His step today, directing the EPA to take a close look at the strict California standards that his predecessor rejected, suggests more of a “10 Mandates to Green America” approach. To retool President Obama’s quote for this day: We can’t solve global warming because I buy a Prius. It’s because of something collective. California + 13 is a pretty large collective.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. mario

    listening to Obama speaking to arab station I can say i am finally proud to be an american. BIG difference between Obama and the idiot we had before him.

    January 27, 2009 at 2:42 am |
  2. Eric from Canada...

    Barack is right on the need for the collective effort, yet if everyone in America drove a Prius the need for dependence on foreign oil would diminish substantively. As a hybrid driver I can vouch for the fact that last year I personally did not give the gas companies $2500......

    January 27, 2009 at 12:13 am |
  3. robyncaffrey keyser west virginia

    lololol great""""'
    yes we can

    January 26, 2009 at 11:33 pm |
  4. Larry

    Don't buy any food that you have to import from other states either; infact just keep to a radius of about 200 miles and it will boost the local economy.

    January 26, 2009 at 10:58 pm |
  5. Nancy Lee

    Oh, for Pete's Sake! President Obama has been in office only 6 days and already the pundits are coming out with this nit-picking nonsense.
    President Obama is right. Changing the lightbulbs and recycling the newspapers is nice, but, we as a nation need to do more on a larger scale.

    Having cars that guzzle less gas will be a big help, especially if made in the USA it will not only help us clean the environment, help consumers save money, but will also help stimulate the economy and lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

    President Obama was elected because most Americans want change. Unfortunately, those who prefer the status quo will fight the president and the American electorate every step of the way.

    January 26, 2009 at 10:55 pm |
  6. J, Jacksonville Bch, FL

    I think this is great, I'm tired of American business pretending that any regulations or demands put on them are the end of the world or a step toward communism. Face it we would love it if our cars got more miles to the gallon and the opposition to it is petro produced nonsense. The car companies are complaining that this will make things harder on them, in needing to retool and go back to the drawing board. Retooling of factories and research and development means jobs and the end result is a more competitive product, woe is the American car manufacturer that our president would require you to act in your own best interest.

    January 26, 2009 at 10:30 pm |
  7. Mavis

    Only consumers have the power to change the world or a light bulb!
    Buy American made food and products,

    January 26, 2009 at 6:24 pm |
  8. Lisa

    Hmmm, I wonder how much of a gas-guzzler that presidential limo is? And can we trade in Air Force One for something a little smaller like, say, a Lear? Wouldn't it have been neat if instead of a Caddie it was a small car or small SUV - like a Saturn?

    I would think, though, if we're all changing our light bulbs and recycling and maybe even ranked public transportation higher on our list of priorities, collectively, we would all make a difference. Going green isn't just about gas mileage.

    January 26, 2009 at 5:58 pm |
  9. Annie Kate

    Our individual efforts don't hurt either; in fact, while large changes will have to be done collectively, small changes done individual add up and make a difference too. So keep changing those light bulbs, insulating your houses better, and finding other ways to cut back on the energy your house uses or wastes. It adds up.

    January 26, 2009 at 5:34 pm |