Driving the Future: A Tale of a Call to Action on Climate and a Long Delayed Response

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - I recently read Driving the Future, the new book by Margo T. Oge, former director of EPA’s Office of Air Quality and Transportation. It’s the story of the evolving effort within the EPA to get the government to take action on climate change, which it finally did, after years of delay ,with the passage of two separate rounds of fuel economy standards, first in 2009, then a second in 2012. Not only was this the first U.S. government action taken on this issue, it was also surprisingly effective. This single stroke of the pen in 2012, will cut greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks in half by 2025, possibly making it the largest single action taken to date in the effort to reduce emissions.

The book opens with the history of climate change science, going back to the work of Karl Friedrich Schimper in the 1830’s, who along with Louis Agassiz, recognized the existence of glaciers and ice ages. From there, the narratuve layers on the evidence, describing the work of John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius, who both demonstrated the heat trapping ability of certain atmospheric gases. It was Arrhenius who recognized that without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the entire planet would remain perpetually frozen.

Work in the US began in 1946 with Roger Revelle who worked with the Navy, studying various phenomena in the Pacific Ocean after the war. This led to an understanding of how the ocean absorbs carbon and how the sun’s rays pass through the atmosphere. Describing the impact of his findings, Revelle testified before a Congressional committee in 1957, calling the use of fossil fuels, “a grandiose scientific experiment,” which could potentially lead to dramatic and erratic shifts in the Earth’s climate in the next century. This was in 1957. It was Revelle who, in 1965, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, caught the attention of a Harvard undergraduate name Al Gore, inspiring him to look further into the topic. Scientists meanwhile, continued to study the issue, refining their understanding.

By 1977, NY Times science writer Walter Sullivan had the subject on the Times’ front page with a story entitled, “Scientists Fear Heavy Use of Coal May Bring Adverse Shift in Climate.” The story goes on from here and you’ve probably heard the rest. Yet here we are, almost 40 years later with over half the Republicans in Congress, acting like this is some new, controversial theory that hasn’t had time to be fully investigated.

The second part of the book reads more like a memoir. It describes Oge’s experience at EPA, working first on air pollution, then later moving into transportation emissions. It’s clear from the story that scientists at EPA have long been aware of the dangers associated with climate change and the tale is often that of frustration, as one group after another effectively blocked any and all attempts at meaningful action. It takes us behind the scenes into conference rooms where numerous dramas and disappointments played out.

The villains in the story include both the familiar: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Tom DeLay, and less famous names like John Sununu, Phillip Cooney, and Joel Kaplan ,who did everything they could to weaken or block any attempts to confront this urgent issue.

The final section of the book describes the many new technologies now in the pipeline that will usher in a new era of clean transportation. During her years at EPA, Oge became familiar with automakers and got a first-hand look behind the scenes look at what they are capable of, given the proper motivation. The future that this story paints is indeed a hopeful one.

I spoke with Ms. Oge (pronounced O-gay) by phone on her book tour. She told me the story of how she emigrated here from Greece and had 60 days to learn English before beginning her studies in Chemical Engineering. After graduation she worked for four and a half years with a consultancy, before answering an ad for a position at EPA, where she spent the next 33 years.

“I wanted to get the message out to the public that 1) climate change is the most serious environmental issue of our time, 2) we have not acted for decades because of the politics, 3) what it took to finally take action under President Obama with the first national regulation to address greenhouse gas emissions, and 4) what the future of transportation is likely to look like.”

“Young people today do not remember the kind of air pollution we had in this country back in the 50’s and 60’s, especially in places like Los Angeles and New York.” That’s important, because it was government regulation, largely through the EPA, that helped to dramatically reduce it. That pollution was visible, but today’s climate pollution is not, which makes it harder to convince people that action is needed.

At that time, car companies unanimously proclaimed that regulations to reduce smog and other hazardous pollutants would put an undue burden on them and destroy the industry. But when the Clean Air Act was passed, the companies innovated with catalytic converter technology which put them at the forefront of the industry, soon to be emulated by carmakers around the world. The result was both cleaner air and a stronger economy. The same thing is happening now. After resisting change for many years, U.S. car companies are now coming out with numerous innovative vehicles which are helping them grow their business. What surprised me was the active role that EPA engineers played, working with the car companies in their Ann Arbor test lab, in determining what would be technologically and commercially feasible in the years to come.

But not all of the changes will come from carmakers. As more people over into cities, other forms of transport will become more important. Many young people today have less interest in owning a car. The cars themselves will also change. They will be lighter weight, electrified, and autonomous or semi-autonomous. Oge says they will be “personal operating systems,” which will allow people to connect to others, ”much in the way that smart phones do today.” These will not only be cleaner, with less health impacts, but they will also be safer as well. She cites a 2011 study by Cisco, which says Americans spent 90 billion hours sitting in traffic that year, which resulted in an additional 230 million metric tons of carbon being emitted. Autonomous cars will reduce that.

She also talks about air pollution, an area she is quite familiar with. The WHO claims seven million annual deaths from air pollution. As the number of mega-cities grows, the U.S. model of cities based on the automobile simply won’t work.

We talked about the role of government in all this. While demonstrating that none of this would have happened without regulation, she insists that regulations must be smart. “They have to create competition and innovation. We tell the industry where they have to go, but we don’t tell them how to get there.”

In her early years at EPA, Ms. Oge worked on indoor air quality. In the course of that work, she ran across the tobacco industry with their tactics of using doubt to counter the science linking smoking with lung cancer. Though the science was airtight, much as it is today with climate change, they used that tool quite effectively to delay action, much as the oil companies are doing today with climate change.

I recommend this book highly, it’s a compelling and informative read.