Wheeler draws barbs for saying rollback won’t affect warming

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 25, 2019

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed last week that the rollback of Obama-era clean car standards would have a negligible impact on global temperature rise.

That’s technically true. But critics — including at least one former EPA chief — are blasting the claim. They say it was phrased in a misleading way and based on a premise that the Supreme Court has rejected.

At issue are Wheeler’s remarks last week before the National Automobile Dealers Association, in which he sought to downplay the rollback’s consequences for global warming.

“Even the most stringent vehicle standards imaginable will have only a minimal impact on global temperatures,” Wheeler said in his prepared remarks.

“According to the Obama EPA’s 2012 analysis, even a much more stringent version of their rule than the one that they eventually finalized would have only lowered global temperatures by two one-hundredths of a degree Celsius by 2100.”

He continued: “So it’s important to put things in context. We’re talking about changes in the hundredths of a degree Celsius, in 2100, under a more aggressive scenario than what the previous administration actually finalized.”

It’s true that the Obama EPA found the clean car standards would have a small impact on global temperatures by the end of the century.

In its regulatory impact analysis, the Obama EPA team wrote, “As a result of the emissions reductions from the rule relative to the reference case, by 2100 … the global mean temperature is projected to be reduced by approximately 0.007-0.018°C.”

But Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator under President Clinton and “climate czar” under President Obama, criticized Wheeler’s remarks in an interview.

Browner said any environmental regulation, when viewed in isolation, has a minor impact on global temperature. That’s why previous administrations viewed the clean car standards as part of a suite of policies aimed at reducing emissions and meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“The argument that this has a small impact [on global temperature] is completely relevant,” Browner told E&E News. “That’s how we’re going to solve this problem of global climate change: by taking many, many, many small steps.”

She continued: “There is no silver bullet. There is no easy solution. It’s going to take a lot of different regulations and answers.”

Browner also noted that the Supreme Court rejected a similar claim in the landmark 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA.

In that case, lawyers for the George W. Bush administration argued that imposing new regulations on carbon dioxide from cars would only lead to an “incremental” drop in global temperature. But the late Justice John Paul Stevens rebuffed this notion.

“EPA overstates its case,” Stevens wrote. “Its argument rests on the erroneous assumption that a small incremental step, because it is incremental, can never be attacked in a federal judicial forum. Yet accepting that premise would doom most challenges to regulatory action. Agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell regulatory swoop.”

Stevens added that “judged by any standard, U.S. motor-vehicle emissions make a meaningful contribution to greenhouse gas concentrations and hence, according to petitioners, to global warming.”

Framing the issue

Clean transportation experts largely agreed with Browner.

“When you look at any individual policy in isolation, it’s going to look inconsequential in the context of addressing such a massive global problem like climate change,” said Hannah Pitt, a transportation analyst at the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm. “It’s a combination of policy actions that are going to deliver more meaningful emissions reductions.”

Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, questioned how Wheeler framed the issue.

“The scope of climate change is so large that when you look at the impact of just one single piece in the entire puzzle, it sounds small and insignificant,” Cooke said. “But the thing is, there are hundreds of those actions planned in the United States and globally.”

He added, “We’ve seen this before with the Clean Power Plan and other rules. This is a tactic used by conservative think tanks and others opposed to action on climate change. They try to focus on the impact of just one specific action.”

While Wheeler spoke in terms of global temperature, experts said other metrics would have better conveyed the significance of the car rules in the fight against climate change.

Pitt said a better metric would have been heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. In a recent analysis, the Rhodium Group found that the clean cars rollback would increase CO2 emissions by between 637 million and 976 million metric tons through 2035.

That’s equivalent to adding from 135 million to 207 million new passenger vehicles to the country’s roads for a year, according to EPA’s online greenhouse gas emissions calculator.

Kevin Rennert, a visiting fellow at Resources for the Future, said another good metric would have been the social cost of carbon, which measures the economic harm from releasing 1 ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“The social cost of carbon is designed to measure the benefits of reducing emissions,” Rennert said. “And when you look at the benefits of reductions in the transportation sector from the Obama rules, the projected global benefits at realistic discount rates yield billions of dollars from avoided climate damages.”

Asked for comment, EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said in an email, “As the final action notes, [the rule change] would result in an indistinguishable change in global temperatures and, based on geographic variability and measurement sensitivity, likely no change in temperatures or physical impacts resulting from anthropogenic climate change in California.”

Block also pointed E&E News to the Obama EPA’s regulatory impact analysis.