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.
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