The warnings are dire. If even the modest climate change bill approved last month by the House of Representatives becomes law, whole industries will go broke. Millions of Americans will lose their jobs. The recession will turn into a full-blown depression. It’ll bring an end to our whole way of life, I tell ya!
The Big Three automakers were the guys issuing the warnings about environmental progress back in those days — and in those days, they really were “the Big Three.” Environmental radicals like, um, Richard Nixon wanted American vehicles to meet fuel-efficiency standards.
I couldn’t remember exactly what the automakers’ ads said or what their apologists said when interviewed by reporters. Through the miracle of the Internet, however, we can travel back to that innocent time.
It turns out that Ford’s company statement warned that the standards would "result in a Ford product line consisting either of all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick." GM warned that its fleet would end “smaller, lighter and less powerful than today’s Chevy Nova.”
What unfortunate examples. The Pinto soon gained fame as the subject of a recall because it had a tendency to explode when rear-ended. The Nova became an object of ridicule in Latin America because “no va” which means “it isn’t going,” in Spanish seemed to describe the car’s most notable feature.
Maybe Detroit execs weren’t just warning us that we’d be stuffed into sardine cans. Maybe they also may meant to send a subtle threat that the sardine cans would be dangerous and wouldn’t go anywhere.
This is familiar territory. Overblown warnings are the tried-and-true tactic of special interests trying to stall environmental progress. And the popular media abets the exercise in déjà vu by ignoring that the tactic has been so frequently used — and so often proven misleading.
Examples abound. A ban on the chlorofluorocarbons that helped create a hole in the ozone layer was going to crush the economy. Industrial plant scrubbers, designed to cut down on smog, would result in massive layoffs. The pollution-trading scheme to reduce acid rain would cause energy costs to skyrocket. None of it materialized.
In almost every case, those laws are likely to have made us stronger.
I have my own experience with the phenomenon. In Columbus, Ga., in early 1990s, I was one of dozens of environmental reporters all over the country who started using a new federal law to get easy stories: The legislation mandated that industrial plants report their toxic emissions to the air, water and land. It passed after Union-Carbide’s release of deadly chemicals from a plant in Bhopal, India, killed some 8,000 people.
The Toxic Release Inventory’s intent was threefold: to give Americans a way to find out what chemicals they might unwittingly be exposed to; to help emergency responders prepare for potential hazardous spills; and — to some extent — to embarrass companies into switching to less-toxic production methods.
All you had to do was look at your community’s Toxic Release Inventory, find a plant with scary releases and interview citizens, plant employees and elected officials. Stir and bake and you had quite a meaty article.
But the stories that turned out to be more interesting were the ones in which company officials confessed that taking stock of their toxic waste actually helped them improve operations and increase profits. This 1992 article in the New York Times was typical:
Richard J. Mahoney, the chairman and chief executive of the Monsanto Company, the nation's fifth-largest chemical manufacturer, said in an interview that the inventory is pushing his company and many others to reconsider how efficiently they use the raw materials flowing into industrial plants.
Releases of chemicals into the air and water, he said, mean that chemical plants are wasting raw materials and money. … "The goal is to use environmental gains as a competitive advantage," Mr. Mahoney said.
Sometimes, it turns out, the industries that most strongly oppose environmental legislation are the ones that benefit. But company executives — nowadays, pushed along by the politicians and interest groups engaged in partisan combat in Congress — seldom see it that way.
The combat, in turn, is perfect fodder for journalists, who lazily add fuel to the fire by running with the economy-versus-environment storyline rather than the more nuanced truth that environmental regulations often help the economy. It’s like watching Die Hard, Die Hard II and Die Hard III — always the same formula, and less interesting with each sequel.
Now, with climate change raising the environmental stakes and the potential costs higher than ever, the dire warnings are back again. The Congressional Budget Office said the House bill would cost the average family $175 a year.
But that hasn’t stopped opponents from predicting the cost per family to be more like $1,500, $3,000 or even $4,000 per family. And it hasn’t stopped media ranging from the Washington Post to Fox News from giving credence to the scariest numbers.
For three decades after standards were approved twice in the 1970s, GM, Ford and Chrysler successfully fought off efforts to make them much tougher. Just two years ago, the (not so) Big Three waged a successful fight to avoid all but the mildest increases.
A couple of months ago, though, I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was seeing right. Huntley and Brinkley are long gone; I think this was on CNN. But there they were — the bosses of the auto companies — standing outside the White House with Barack Obama.
“In the past, an agreement such as this would have been considered impossible,” Obama said. “It’s not secret that these are folks who’ve occasionally been at odds for years, even decades. In fact, some of the groups here have even been embroiled in lawsuits against each other.”