Cleaner air . . . it can happen!

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Living in California, especially the Central Valley, means you think about air. When you can see the air you breathe, this is not a good thing. While the Bush Administration used regulatory changes to weaken the Clean Air Act, California’s legislators acted to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and California’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit against six large automakers contending vehicle emissions cost the state millions of dollars in health costs and environmental damage. To some this is simply politics; to others it is a matter of life and breath. Either way, is it enough?

The new legislation and regulations are designed to reduce emissions from utilities, refineries and manufacturing plants. Communities are working to reduce pollution – emissions and particles – from agriculture. While this is a start, the major culprit remains the internal combustion engine. These engines – used to power cars, trucks, generators, lawn mowers, leaf blowers and much more – burn fossil fuels that release massive amounts of carbon monoxide, sulfur and other pollutants into the air. They accounts for 70 percent of our air pollution, with vehicle emissions being the major source.

An attack on the internal combustion engine is often viewed as an attack on our lifestyle. Nothing is more American. Nothing is more central to our lives. Since the first vehicles rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly lines, cars and trucks have been an integral part of our economy. Americans have more vehicles per capita and drive more miles per capita than anyone else. We drive to work. We drive for work. We drive to the ballpark, the beach and the mall. We drive our kids to and from school. For most of us, especially in the Central Valley, life without a car is unthinkable.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has proposed an investment of $7.5 billion to help replace polluting cars, trucks and other vehicles by 2013. The district plan also suggests that delay to 2021 reduces the cost to $3 billion, and delay to 2024 reduces the cost to $2 billion. It appears that the longer we wait, the less we will need to pay. But, the reality is that any delay will be costly for Central Valley residents with increased illness and death.

What can we do?

The cheapest, easiest and most realistic way to reduce environmental damage and lessen our dependency on foreign oil is to increase fuel efficiency. The technology exists, but the auto industry needs to be pushed. While governments can require increased fuel efficiency, consumers must change their mindset about vehicles. Charles Territo, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, explained that “as consumers continue to demand fuel efficient vehicles, manufacturers will continue to offer more choices.” Millions of new vehicles are purchased each year. Consumers need to make better decisions for the environment and their wallets.

The combination of government regulation and consumer demand can lead to immediate improvements in fuel efficiency, reducing greenhouse emissions. But, much more is needed now and in the future. The federal government and the auto industry must increase their investment in finding alternative ways to power automobiles. We now have more efficient hybrid cars, but they continue to use fossil fuels and create pollution. Getting rid of the internal combustion engine must become a priority. The Telsa Roadster shows that a return of the electric car is possible as improved technology has increased power and range. General Motors has produced a car that runs on hydrogen, but mass production is still years away. Cars powered by alternative energy must become readily available and affordable to the average American.

We also need to reduce our dependency on cars and trucks. Local governments and employers need to improve alternative modes of transportation. Bike lanes and routes need to be established or expanded. Bus service needs to be expanded. Incentives for using alternative modes of transportation may be necessary, such as subsidized bus passes or increased premiums for automobiles. We need to change our mindset on mass public transit. While governments and the private sector need to partner to create alternative modes of transportation, we need to use them.

We must begin now. Alternative sources of energy are available. Alternative technologies for powering vehicles and other machines exist. Our governments and corporate America need to make these alternatives readily available and easy to use. Attitudes must change. We must be willing to change our habits and behavior, to make better decisions. Cleaner air is possible . . . if we want it.

Scott Key is a faculty member at Fresno Pacific University whose Ph.D. is in public policy analysis from the University of Illinois. At FPU, he teaches in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Social Sciences as well as the School of Education.

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