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Trump vs. California: In Blow to Climate, U.S. Revokes State’s Stricter Auto Emissions Standards

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California is in a legal battle with the Trump administration over tailpipe emissions, air quality and climate change. California recently joined nearly two dozen other states to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration after it revoked the state’s air pollution standards for cars and light trucks, in its latest regulatory rollback of laws aimed at slowing the climate crisis. Auto emissions are California’s single largest source of greenhouse gases. From Los Angeles, we’re joined by Mary Nichols, the longtime chair of the California Air Resources Board. She has led the board in crafting California’s internationally recognized climate action plan. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, speaks with us from San Francisco.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in San Francisco. The Golden State is in a legal battle with the Trump administration over tailpipe emissions, air quality, climate change. California recently joined nearly two dozen other states to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration after it revoked California’s air pollution standards for cars and light trucks, in its latest regulatory rollback of laws aimed at slowing the climate crisis. This is California Attorney General Xavier Becerra addressing reporters last month.

ATTORNEY GENERAL XAVIER BECERRA: Our message to those who claim to support states’ rights: Don’t trample on ours. Doing so would be an attempt to undo the progress we’ve made over the past decades. We can’t afford that here in California. We cannot afford to backslide in our battle against climate change. For us, this is about survival. Our communities are screaming for help to address the climate crisis. Unlike the Trump administration, we don’t run scared. … It’s clear that the stakes are high for California. It’s clear to consumers across the country. And it’s clear even to automakers, who are embracing cleaner cars.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration’s move seeks to cancel California’s agreement with Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, that would see passenger vehicles average about 50 miles per gallon by 2026. The Trump administration has proposed freezing auto efficiency at 2020 levels, or around 37 miles a gallon. Auto emissions are California’s single largest source of greenhouse gases. Late last month, Minnesota and New Mexico joined 10 other states in adopting California’s more stringent air quality rules in a rebuke to the Trump administration.

Well, for more, we are here in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. There, we’re joined by Mary Nichols, the longtime chair of the California Air Resources Board. She’s led the board in crafting California’s internationally recognized climate action plan. Mary Nichols is known as the “Queen of Green.” And here in San Francisco, we’re joined by Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Mary Nichols and Michael Brune, welcome to Democracy Now! Mary Nichols, let’s begin with you. What exactly is the Trump administration trying to do?

MARY NICHOLS: Well, they announced, now almost two years ago, their goal, which is to eradicate the standards that had been voluntarily agreed to by the state, the federal government and the auto industry under President Obama. So, this is part of the broader campaign to erase from the books every accomplishment, really, of the Obama administration.

But in this case, the argument was that they needed to give relief to the auto industry by eliminating the standards, which have required the industry to produce slightly more efficient, cleaner cars every year, going back to 2012 and out to 2025. So, what they’re doing is they’re just stopping the program where it is, instead of moving ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the response of these auto companies? I mean, usually you’re on the other side of these companies, demanding that they be regulated, but it seems now you’re coming together on the same side, that the Trump administration has united you.

MARY NICHOLS: Well, the industry, having agreed to these standards in the first place, did ask for some changes. They wanted some — a little more time. They wanted a little more flexibility in how to meet the standards.

They didn’t ask for the program to go away. And there were a couple reasons for that, the main one being that they are in a very competitive global market now, where every one of the companies wants to be making and selling cars in China, in India, in the developing world. So, they have all made commitments to move into zero-emission vehicles, battery electric vehicles, advanced hybrids, fuel cell vehicles. And California has been working with the industry on these plans and had been collaborating with them to make sure that the program could be effective, but also something that the industry could live with.

What the Trump administration has been trying to do goes way too far. And when the companies, through their chief executive officers, told the president that, he just said they didn’t know what was good for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, I want to bring you into this conversation, head of the Sierra Club. Nearly two dozen states have sued to block the Trump administration from undoing California’s authority to set strict car pollution rules, one of the biggest U.S. battles over climate change. Talk about the significance of this lawsuit.

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. Well, as Mary noted a couple minutes ago, oil is now the largest source of climate pollution, not just here in California, but across the country and even around the world. As coal has begun to come down, oil now is the largest source of this climate emergency.

And we can speak really plainly in saying that these regulations are actually working. The safeguards that were put in place by Obama have done a great job in cutting climate pollution, not just in California, but across the country, and also saving people money at the gas pump, while also creating lots of jobs.

And so, there are two issues that are at play. And the lawsuits from 22 states and the city of Los Angeles, city of New York, and separate but complementary lawsuits from the Sierra Club and other organizations are looking to protect those standards and continue the transition away from fossil fuels, away from oil, and moving towards clean electric vehicles and other zero-polluting vehicles, but then also to protect the right that California has, that is enshrined in the Clean Air Act, to set strong standards, to protect public health, to create jobs, to save money and to cut pollution. So those are the two issues that are at play.

And just like every lawsuit that environmental organizations and other states have filed against this administration, we’re confident we’re going to win, because what we have seen is that this administration is sloppy. They are reckless. They don’t use the facts. They don’t follow the science. And that pattern of behavior from this administration is really difficult to defend in court. And so we expect to win. We will fight this vigorously, and we will prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, there was just a new study. “Driving is not just an air pollution and climate change problem — turns out, it just [might] be the largest contributor of microplastics in California coastal waters.” That’s one of many new findings released Wednesday from the most comprehensive study to date on microplastics in California. Rainfall washes more than 7 trillion microplastics, much of it tire particles left behind on streets, into San Francisco Bay each year, an amount 300 times greater than what comes from microfibers washing off polyester clothes or microbeads from beauty products. I’m reading from news. If you can comment on this, as well, Michael?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. I did see that study, and seeing it gives me comfort that there’s people like Mary Nichols here in California who are beginning to explore these issues. It causes me some alarm to think about Bernhardt at the Interior Department or Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, running EPA, or Trump and Pence, who continue to ignore science and who continue to give benefits to some of the biggest polluters in this country.

What we know is that here in California, but also in several dozen states across the country, we are beginning to find a way to help people to get from place to place, either in vehicles that pollute a lot less, or moving towards electric vehicles, or by moving to other forms of clean transportation, using mass transit, living closer to where we work and play. There’s a variety of solutions that we can put into place at the state and at the federal level to cut all forms of pollution and improve our quality of life. This is what the environmental movement is doing in concert with private industry and with state regulators. And again, we are facing fierce headwinds coming from this administration on almost every front.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Nichols, what do you have to say to President Trump? And what is the biggest problem you’re facing in California right now around the climate crisis and the EPA going after California, and also, overall, deregulating, you know, whether we’re talking about coal power plants, whether we’re talking about deregulating, you know, restrictions on energy companies, in general?

MARY NICHOLS: Sure. Well, it wasn’t lost on most people when Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency now, sent a letter to California criticizing us for the fact that we still have some very persistent, troublesome areas, where we don’t meet the federal health standards for air quality. And we’ve been working diligently to bring that down over the years. We’ve had a lot of success, but we also still have quite a bit of work to do.

The problem of global warming actually makes air pollution worse, because heat, in and of itself, causes whatever emissions are in the air to turn into air pollution more quickly and more completely. So, it’s really a vicious circle. So, at the same time that he’s critiquing us for the fact that our air is not as good as we want it to be, he’s also taking away, or trying to take away, the biggest tool that we have, which is our ability to set more progressive standards for new motor vehicles — cars, trucks, buses, etc. — in order to make sure that we don’t do anything that might possibly restrict emissions of greenhouse gases.

So, honestly, it’s a ridiculous situation that the Trump administration has now gotten itself into, where in their great desire to deregulate and take away California’s authority, at the same time they are eliminating the tool that has proven over the years to be the most effective one that we and all the other states that choose to use our standards have found in order to make our air healthier for our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Nichols, can you talk more about Minnesota and New Mexico becoming the latest states to embrace both of California’s strict rules on tailpipe emissions and zero-emission vehicles, why this is so important at this point, when the Trump administration is taking on California, and how this affects those states?

MARY NICHOLS: Sure. I think that the sign that we’re doing something that makes sense, not just for California, but for people around the country, is that governors in other states, who don’t want to necessarily even use the word “California standards” when they move in this area, have recognized that we need to be all moving in the direction of the cleanest, most efficient vehicles that are out there.

The auto industry — and Minnesota has some auto-related industry, but mostly that is not their — that’s not their principal economy, but they do have pockets of pollution. And they are troubled with, you know, wanting to be a part of the movement that’s going on around the world in the direction of transportation which is cleaner and more efficient, and they’d like to be a home for some of the advanced technologies that are now emerging. They’ve seen that new companies are actually rising up to produce some of the newer zero-emission vehicles, and I think they would like to be a part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Michael Brune, the effect of the climate activism that we are seeing, not only in the United States, but all over the world? I mean, just last week, young people walking out of school throughout California, around the country, around the world, millions and millions and millions of people marching to deal with the climate crisis. What do you think is going to be the direction of climate activism? And where do you see this all coming to a head with President Trump?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Sure. Well, I think the effect of the protests that we’ve seen and the marches has been profound. My own children were marching on Market Street just last week. And what we’re seeing, as you mentioned, is millions of people who are demanding strong action.

And what we are also seeing is that we’re seeing heads of state, here in California, seven other states in the United States, have committed to move to 100% clean energy, moving off of all fossil fuels. We have seen more than a hundred mayors of cities across the United States beginning to make the same commitment to get off all fossil fuels and move to 100% clean, renewable energy. We’re seeing the largest companies in the country and around the world, companies like Salesforce and Walgreens, IKEA, Starbucks and many others, make the same commitment to get off of all fossil fuels.

And what we’re starting to see is an increasing willingness by governors, by state regulators, by people across all of civil society — except the Trump administration — to actually face this crisis and realize that we not just have an obligation — we don’t just have an obligation to act, but there is an opportunity to address some of the biggest challenges that we face in this country. We can revive our economy. We can put millions of people to work in good, high-quality, well-paying jobs. We can cut air and water and climate pollution all at the same time by challenging our leaders to move off of fossil fuels and move towards clean energy. I think it’s an inspiring time, and we’re starting to see strong action almost everywhere, except inside Washington, D.C., and except from this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Brune, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Sierra Club. He’s based here in San Francisco. And Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, has led the board in crafting California’s internationally recognized climate action plan. She’s known as the “Queen of Green.”

When we come back, the California Legislature has voted to ban private, for-profit prisons, including private immigration jails. The bill is now awaiting the governor’s signature. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Sad Tomorrow” by The Muffs, a band from Southern California. Singer Kim Shattuck passed away from complications of ALS on October 2nd.

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