California wildfires fill our air with plumes of toxic pollution. Historically, our geography combined with an avid car culture has saddled our state with some of the worst air in the nation. As we get drier and hotter with climate change, fires will increase and intensify bad air days.
We’ve seen them before. In 1968, you could hardly see 10 feet in downtown Los Angeles on some days. The health toll was extreme, including stinging eyes, difficulty breathing and asthma attacks. That’s why California moved quickly and decisively – in the face of federal inaction – to establish strong emissions standards for cars and trucks. And it worked.
When Congress passed the Clean Air Act, it specifically recognized California’s right to protect its citizens with stronger standards on clean cars and trucks than federal ones. Today, 13 states plus Washington D.C. – which together represent more than one-third of the new car market and 113 million Americans – have embraced California’s clean cars standards.
Now, that right is being threatened. A congressional hearing last week focused on creating a single national standard for vehicle emissions and fuel economy.
There are two big problems with this. First, state and federal clean car standards are already integrated and working as one program. In 2012, the automakers, federal government and California agreed to a nationwide program so that state and national standards for tailpipe emissions are the same. The hearing was a veiled attempt to undermine this program and do away with California’s authority to set its own standards.
Second, California’s leadership must continue. Without the state’s right to set its own vehicle standards, Americans would still be using leaded gasoline and breathing dirtier air. California research and leadership led to catalytic converters and technological advances that dramatically reduced vehicle pollution. The states are laboratories for change that lead to policy advances that help all of America.
The health of Americans depends on decisions being made now in Washington. State standards help clean the air and reduce health emergencies and long-term health effects. The American Association for the Advancement of Science found that air pollution causes nearly 80,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year – more than twice the number of fatalities that are caused by car crashes. A recent American Lung Association study found that car pollution in ten clean car states resulted in $37 billion in health and climate costs in 2015.
These strong vehicle standards have saved millions of lives and billions of dollars, and spurred economic growth and new advanced clean car technology. We cannot afford to let Washington undermine California’s authority and our states’ rights to protect our communities’ health and our economy.
Robert F. Sawyer and Jananne Sharpless are former chairpersons of the California Air Resources Board and are now volunteers with the American Lung Association in California. They can be contacted at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.