Category Archives: Auto

Tracking on Corporations and Health

Those seeking to modify corporate practices that harm health often have to track changes in corporate or government policy to assess their progress. Here, Corporations and Health Watch describes a few databases and websites useful for tracking local and nation policy and the social responsibility performance of major corporations.

Tracking local policies:

Looking for policies to propose to solve a local problem related to food industry practices that reduce access to healthy food? Visit Prevention Institute’s Local Policy databasean online resource of local policies that can improve opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity. For example, a search for policies on unhealthy foods located 21 specific local policies, mostly in California, enacted to reduce promotion of unhealthy foods.

 

Tracking federal legislation:

Open Congress tracks legislative proposals and bills on various issues and industries. Its website explains different ways to use the site. For example, OpenCongress bill pages bring together news coverage, blog buzz, insightful comments, and more. Linking to OpenCongress thus gives readers access to the big picture as well as the official details on specific legislative proposals. If you write a blog post about a bill and include the official title (for example, H.R.800), then a link to your blog post will appear on that bill page. Another section shows the most-viewed bills, or hot bills by issue area. The site includes one-click sharing to Digg, StumbleUpon, Facebook, e-mail a friend, and more. It also allows visitors to find their members of Congress and to track their actions and what people are saying about them.

To illustrate topics of interest to Corporate and Health Watch readers, visitors can track legislative proposals on the following topics, among many others:

Alcohol taxes
Automobile industry
Firearms
Food industry
Pharmaceutical research
Tobacco industry

 

Tracking corporate responsibility:

Several organizations have ranked corporations on their social responsibility.

Fortune Magazine ranks 100 of the Fortune 500 on business responsibility.

The Ethics & Policy Integration Centre provide a user-friendly resource for tracking US and emerging global standards in corporate responsibility. It includes sections on environmental and human righs standards, but not health or consumer protection standards.

Corporate Responsibility Index The British group Business in the Community’s CR Index is the United Kingdom’s leading benchmark of responsible business. It helps companies to integrate and improve responsibility throughout their operations by providing a systematic approach to managing, measuring and reporting on business impacts in society and on the environment. Each year the CR Index lists and rates the top 100 companies in the UK.

 

The Perils of Short-term Profiteering: U.S. Automakers Focus on SUVs Hurts Their Profits and Our Health

With record high gas prices dominating the news, Americans are finally facing the music. The big SUVs and pick up trucks that the US auto industry relentlessly promoted in the 1990s are now economically unsustainable, as well as more accident-prone and polluting than the sedans and compacts that have allowed the European and Asian auto industries to prosper. Though environmentalists have long argued that these vehicles are environmentally unsustainable, for more than a decade, SUVs and trucks had been the top selling vehicles in America. Of course, U.S. consumers shoulder some of the blame for the SUV and large truck craze that has left vehicles languishing in used car lots or drive ways as drivers shy away from a fill-er-up that can top $100. But in the 1990s, the US auto industry spent more than $9 billion on advertising to convince Americans the highly profitable SUVs were safer, more convenient and more manly than the alternatives. In this report Corporations and Health Watch examines how the US auto industry’s desire for short-term gain has led to plummeting profit margins and jeopardized the industry’s future viability while condemning American consumers to unsafe and polluting vehicles.

On the heels of the housing crisis and a declining economy, gas prices have set record highs this spring and summer, with the average price per gallon increasing by more than a dollar since February. As fuel prices rise, Americans are finding ways to cut back on fuel costs by walking and biking, taking public transportation, carpooling, limiting errand trips and curtailing summer travel plans. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that in April, the number of miles traveled on U.S. roads was down 1.8% compared to April of 2007, a reduction in miles traveled on public roads for the sixth month in a row. In March, the number of miles was down 4.3% as compared to a year ago and was the greatest decline in travel on public roads since 1979. At the end of June, MasterCard reported its ninth consecutive week in declining gas sales with overall annual gasoline declining for the first time in over 17 years.

Changes in US auto market

But U.S. consumers are making other changes too: they’re no longer buying as many SUVs and trucks, looking instead for smaller, fuel-efficient cars, a move Ford VP of marketing Jim Farley called “breathtaking.” In April 2008, one in five cars sold in the US was a compact or subcompact car, compared to one in eight a decade ago when SUV sales were booming. Pickup truck sales were down 5% overall from last year and Chrysler saw a 22% drop in SUV sales this year. In May, GM reported that overall sales plunged by nearly 28%. Marketing firm J.D. Power & Associates estimates that annual motor vehicle sales will be the lowest since 1995, with a decline of 1.2 million vehicles since last year.

Meanwhile, Japanese manufacturers report booming sales in many of their lines as hybrid vehicles and other fuel-efficient cars are in high demand. The Toyota Prius was the ninth best selling car in the United States in 2007, selling more than 64,000 of the hybrid vehicles and Toyota has now sold 1.5 million hybrid vehicles around the world and plans to sell one million a year after 2010. In May, Honda passed Chrysler in U.S. sales for the first time and Toyota became the number two American seller. In a first, during the same month, Detroit’s Big Three, GM, Ford and Chrysler, together held only 44.4% of the market share as compared to 48.1% held by Asian manufacturers. Toyota is close to passing GM as the world’s top auto seller.

To encourage sales of large trucks and SUVs, some automakers are offering incentive programs: Chrysler has offered buyers the opportunity to lock-in gasoline prices at $2.99 a gallon for three years and Ford announced it would offer “employee pricing” on their F-Series truck, which had previously been the most popular line of vehicles in the country for two decades. Past promotional sales of this kind have led to increased sales but lower profits, another example of the short-termism that has undermined the US auto industry. The Big Three of U.S. auto manufacturers have also cut back on production, with GM announcing it planned to close four North American plants to focus on bringing fuel-efficient vehicles to market.

New marketing and production strategies

U.S. automakers are also shifting their marketing and production strategies. For the last two decades, the SUV and the large truck were marketed to the U.S. public as all-around vehicles used for for hauling large or heavy items, for a quick trip to the store and for the family vacations. These oversized vehicles have also been painted as representing safety, security, power and prestige. Realizing the gravity of declining sales, analysts predict that manufacturers will have to reframe the way SUVs and large trucks are marketed, portraying them as supplemental and used for specific purposes, like hauling heavy loads and work. Manufacturers are currently highlighting SUV hybrids, trying to sell them as more fuel-efficient and environmentally sound. Finally, automakers are boosting production of “small crossovers,” or vehicles that look like SUVs but are built on car underpinnings. These moves suggest the U.S. auto industry is desperate to hang onto that sector of new vehicle sales that brings in the most profit, even as other auto makers have adapted to changing conditions.

However, Detroit’s Big Three are also diversifying their offerings, bringing more hybrids and smaller, fuel-efficient cars to the market. Alan R. Mulally, Ford’s chief executive, explained that current shifts are not temporary, but rather “structural in nature.” While some vehicles are new to the market, others are imported from overseas. General Motors and Ford, for instance, are adding smaller vehicles, such as the Saturn Astra and the Ford Ka, sold in Asia and Europe, to its United States offerings. Officials at Ford see the small car market as a growing one and estimate that global car sales will hit 38 million in 2012, up from 23 million in 2002. In the United States, Ford predicts 2012 small car sales of 3.4 million, up 25% from a decade ago. Manufacturers are also developing a number of new hybrid, ethanol-based and electric vehicles for the market. To compete with the Japanese manufacturers that dominate hybrid car sales and are developing electric cars, in 2010 GM plans to begin production of the Cheverolet Volt, a battery-powered vehicle with a small gasoline engine that allows for recharging.

While some are declaring the era of the SUV and large truck over, US manufacturers, as we have seen, are not ready to let go of the big-ticket items for the domestic market. G.M. plans to manufacturer large trucks and SUVs with diesel engines, claiming that this switch can increase the mileage of large trucks by up to 70%. Japanese maker Toyota remained confident in the recovery of the large-scale truck market, with group VP Bob Carter noting that those who needed larger vehicles would not be willing or able to make the switch to smaller cars.

Surprise or closed eyes?

Although auto analysts and environmentalists have been criticizing the US auto industry’s reliance on SUVs for more than a decade, Detroit’s Big Three seem unified in their shock and surprise at the rapidly declining sales in large trucks and SUVs. George Pipas, Ford’s market analyst stated, “This seismic shift in the marketplace has definitely taken us and everybody else by surprise.” Kelley Blue Book executive market analyst Jack Nerad suggested that top U.S. manufacturers saw a shift toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars coming in years, not in months. Unlike the gas shocks of the 1970s and 1980s, automakers now hold that high oil prices are here to stay and that the shift toward smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles will be a permanent one.

But how much of a surprise is this shift? In Europe, the use of diesel engines has been standard as they are more fuel-efficient than those based on gasoline and new technology has reduced pollution through the development of cleaner burning engines. Given the current state of oil prices and auto sales, European manufacturers are increasingly looking to the U.S. as a market for the newer diesel engine cars. Japanese manufacturers, meanwhile, have long dominated the production and sale of hybrid vehicles, with Toyota introducing the hybrid in 1997. These manufacturers continue to develop new fuel-efficient and hybrid cars for the market. Nissan plans to introduce an electric car by 2010. European automakers are also shifting production toward even more fuel-efficient vehicles. French maker Renault has partnered with the California-based Project Better Place to produce electric cars for markets in Denmark and Israel with the Israeli government promising to cut taxes on the sale of these vehicles to promote their sale.

The Role of Government

But the decisions of U.S. vs. Japanese and European automakers also needs to be seen in light of the different relations between automakers and government. After the oil shocks of the 1970s and 1980s, European governments sharply raised fuel taxes and promoted the use of diesel by taxing gasoline at higher rates. After the crisis, European governments purposefully retained high fuel taxes to discourage consumption, thus encouraging the design and purchase of smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles as well as the use of public transportation – something more heavily supported by European governments that in the United States.

During the oil shocks, the United States witnessed the first ever fuel economy standards and reductions in speed limits. Small car sales in America increased temporarily with an attendant rise in fuel economy. When gas prices dropped, however, larger vehicles sales increased, due in part to heavy promotion. The United States was the only major developed nation to increase oil consumption during this period and not until this past spring, after 32 years, did Washington lawmakers again pass new energy laws requiring new cars and trucks, as an average, to meet a standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. With some of the lowest gasoline prices, lowest energy taxes and most fuel inefficient vehicles in the developed world, “about a quarter of the world’s oil goes to the United States every day, and of that, more than half goes to its cars and trucks,” reports the New York Times.

And in Japan, where fuel taxes resemble those of Europe rather than the United States, making small cars more popular, lawmakers have encouraged the sale of hybrid vehicles over the last decade by offering buyers a $3000 rebate for choosing the more fuel-efficient cars. Seven years before the United States pushed through stricter emission standards, Japanese regulators required manufacturers to achieve gas mileage of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2010. During the mid 2000s, sales of larger vehicles declined in Japan due to the passing of stricter diesel emissions standards that prompted Japanese manufacturers to shift away from the production of trucks or to look to the U.S. for markets. By and large, Japanese and European auto manufacturers who have not relied on big-ticket, large vehicles for the bulk of their profits are now not in the position of dealing with plummeting sales and growing inventories of vehicles. Currently, four out of ten of the fastest-selling vehicles in the U.S. are hybrids, with the Toyota Prius moving quickest with sales occurring, on average, just four days after arriving in dealers’ showrooms.

The China Solution?

Rather than taking a lesson from Europe and Japan, U.S. automakers are turning to China as a new market for big, gas-guzzling vehicles. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s demand for energy will increase by 65% during the next twenty years with petroleum remaining as the top energy source. While the United States remains the top energy consumer, the IEA predicts China’s oil demand will double by 2030, with much of this increase being due to the increasing demand for cars. Between 1990 and 2006, the number of vehicles in China increased sevenfold and China now represents the second largest car market in the world and may overtake the largest market, the United States, by 2015. Given this, U.S. and other automakers are looking to China as a strong market for the SUVs and large trucks that Americans are now refusing to buy. During January and February of this year, sales of SUVs in China rose 38% as compared to one year ago. At a spring auto show in Beijing, executive VP of Shanghai General Motors – a partnership between GM and a Chinese partner – Robert Scocia stated “we’re all trying to get into this market.” Looking increasingly toward Chinese markets for growth, GM plans to sell and export over $1 billion in vehicles to one if its Chinese partners while Ford plans to sell over 30,000 vehicles plus transmission components in its own joint venture. However, China does not present an entirely rosy picture for manufacturers committed to producing these high-ticket, gas guzzling vehicles: the Chinese government is increasingly demanding that automakers increase fuel economy, including by producing electric and gasoline-electric hybrid cars. China also recently imposed vehicle taxes based on engine size. Despite these measures, however, China sets price controls on the price of fuel which helps increase demand for larger, fuel-inefficient vehicles associated with prestige as has been the case with the United States.

The World Health Organization reports that 800,000 people die each year from the effects of air pollution. A variety of diseases including cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and stroke have been attributed to air pollution. Under pressure from automakers, U.S. lawmakers, particularly under the Bush Administration, have lagged behind European and Japanese governments in passing stricter fuel economy standards and promoting the use of smaller, fuel-efficient cars by raising gasoline taxes. For almost two decades, U.S. automakers focused on the production and marketing of big-ticket, gas guzzling vehicles, contributing to increasing health and safety problems and contributing to global warming. The result: plummeting sales, massive lay-offs of workers and a serious threat to the future viability of the auto industry, previously a central force in the US economy.

In the last 30 years, US businesses have led a concerted and largely successful campaign to get government “off its back” and allow its executives and market forces to solve any economic and social problems that arise. The current plight of the US auto industry may lead some observers to question the wisdom of this strategy and to ask whether the US auto industry, its shareholders, US drivers and the environment would be in better shape today if government had provided more forceful oversight of its business decisions.

Interview with Lena Pons

Lena Pons is a Policy Analyst for the Auto Safety Group, a division of the national, nonprofit organization Public Citizen, that seeks to protect health, safety and democracy. The Auto Safety Group focuses on issues of auto safety, government and corporate accountability, human health and environmental sustainability as related to auto emissions. Its recent work has focused on improving fuel economy through both legislative and legal routes. The Auto Safety Group also works with other organizations on issues related to the Clean Air Act, fuel economy and automobile emissions. In January 2008, Corporations and Health Watch’s Zoë MeleoErwin interviewed Lena Pons. We present excerpts here.

CHW: Recently the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that California and the sixteen other states couldn’t set their own, more strict, emission standards. What role did the auto industry play in this defeat?

LP: Congressman Henry Waxman of the House Oversight Committee identified that there was some interference from Vice President Dick Cheney and Chrysler. Following a meeting that EPA administrator Stephen Johnson had with Cheney and Chrysler, they devised this legal argument for why the California waiver should be denied. And the California waiver was denied in a highly unusual way. They presented no technical justification the only documentation on the waiver denial that was given is a three or four page letter from EPA administrator Johnson to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It outlines that as a result of the energy bill being signed into law, California standards no longer meet the rubric under the Clean Air Act to say that they’re more protective. The claim by EPA is dubious because the California standards would go into effect sooner and their target emissions reduction is more stringent than that of the new national standards. What the waiver denial is based on is the assumption that the most recently passed energy bill will produce a comparable amount of public health. But there’s absolutely no data to support that; they’ve presented absolutely no estimate of what the public health benefit of the standards that were passed by this latest energy law would be. The states that have full regulations written on adopting these standards plus a handful of environmental groups have all sued EPA on the grounds that their waiver denial has not been properly supported.

CHW: One of the things the auto industry said in response to California waiver was that it would be a confusing and inefficient patchwork quilt of fuel economy programs. How legitimate is that argument?

LP: The seventeen states that have either passed the regulations or have stated intent by executive order to pass the regulations would cover slightly more than half of the entire population of the country. And a big part of that is that there are huge states involved; California and New York alone include over 15% of the total US population. California set separate standards, several states had adopted them and the functional outcome of that is that all of the vehicles sold in the United States meet these low emission vehicle requirements for the most part. The auto industry is saying that you would lose a lot of consumer choice in these states that have passed these regulations because they just wouldn’t be able to sell certain vehicles in the states. But in terms of the patchwork effect, when you’re talking about 50% of the country plus now Canada has standards that will be roughly the same as California, it’s just not going to be cost effective for them to produce two sets of vehicles. They’re never going to comply with a patchwork of regulations; they’re just going to comply to the most stringent set. So the reality of that argument is that they don’t want to meet the more stringent California standards.

CHW: What were the issues involved in the 2006 lighttruck fuel economy rule and what was Public Citizen Auto Group’s involvement in the case?

LP: The biggest issue in that case was that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had valued the reduced carbon dioxide emissions from having improved fuel economy as having zero public benefit. We filed a suit in the 9 th Circuit Court of Appeals on the 2006 lighttruck fuel economy rule in collaboration with several other environmental groups and were represented by an independent law firm. We ultimately won in that the court found that the rule was arbitrary and capricious. It’s been vacated; the agency will have to go back and rewrite it to reflect some of the problems that they identified. The court also found that NHTSA had changed the fundamental way that the fuel economy standards were calculated and that without promoting a backstop, some kind of minimum value for fuel economy, that it was overvaluing consumer choice over the need of the United States to save energy—a specific criterion that was laid out in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975 which established the fuel economy standards. And so they found that the way that fuel economy standards could be calculated could stand as long as there was a minimum fuel economy value. This is a mixed victory because the new calculation scheme doesn’t actually force the auto makers to promote the best available technologies. But with a backstop it at least prevents a degradation below this minimum value, which is positive.

CHW: In your campaigns on auto safety, public health and environmental sustainability, what strategies does the Auto Safety Group employ? And specifically, how important is litigation as a tactic?

LP: Ideally we try to influence any rule making through the notice and comment period. And if the agency is nonresponsive to our comments then our next recourse is to litigate. So litigation has certainly been a part of our strategy used to a significant public benefit because, as a result of multiple litigation campaigns, we’ve been able to secure much stronger regulations than what the agency initially applied. Some of the time the regulations that the agency has presented us with are not actually in compliance with the law that Congress set forth and then we feel that we have a responsibility to make sure that the agency is upholding the law. So we like to influence the legislative process to get Congress to put forth the best possible law and then through the regulatory process we have an opportunity to influence rulemaking. But when we find that our concerns are ignored by the agency then we have no other recourse than to litigate.

CHW: Recently European Union officials announced that auto makers would have to greatly reduce carbon dioxide tailpipe emissions or face fines. How have automakers responded and do you have any thoughts on how this will influence the United States?

LP: There’s been a lot of skepticism as to whether those regulations will be durable. Probably the best indicator of what auto makers are going to do is the fact that at this year’s auto show they’ve really brought out a lot of highly fuel efficient concept vehicles that we haven’t seen before. For instance, Ford put a concept Focus out on the floor this year that’s supposed to get 20% improved fuel economy, which is an indication that they probably have more technology than they’re willing to admit openly in terms of improving vehicle fuel economy and by extension emissions. There were also stronger Japanese regulations in 2007, I believe Canada has recently strengthened their regulations, and China introduced their first fuel economy standards last year, so I think that auto makers are really starting to think pretty hard about it. With respect to bringing European vehicles to the United States, General Motors produces “Opel” brand vehicles that are much more fuel efficient than a comparable vehicle that would be sold under the Saturn brand in the United States. Now they’re bringing several of those Opel vehicles to the United States and will sell them as Saturn Vehicles. So they clearly do have the technology because they’re building more fuel efficient vehicles in other markets. But not all the auto makers have the flexibility that General Motors has; an auto maker like Chrysler is clearly going to have a more difficult time because they don’t really have a foreign manufacturing brand that is making improved fuel economy vehicles.

CHW: How does consumer demand influence changing fuel economy and emissions standards?

LP: Consumer demand with respect to fuel economy is a really strange relationship. I’ve read a variety of studies about how people use fuel economy as a determining factor in their automobile purchase decisions. And most state that people aren’t particularly longsighted in terms of how they make their vehicle purchase decisions. If you think back to the oil price shocks in the 1970s, one lasted for 14 months and the other one lasted for 19 months and so people haven’t really adjusted to the idea that oil prices are always going to be high.

Even if you look at the last five years, there was a really strong spike in oil prices following Hurricane Katrina and then they dropped back down about 70 cents per gallon. That kind of price volatility really suggests that people will make their decision about fuel economy based on whatever the price of gas is the day that they go to the dealership. And that’s why you see sales figures for a vehicle like the Prius are going to track pretty much with the price of oil and so in a month when gas prices are very high consumers are going to be more likely to purchase a vehicle like the Prius and months where oil prices are lower then consumers are more likely to choose a vehicle that might not get the same kind of fuel economy. But I think that people are really starting to become quite a bit more environmentally conscious and the durability of a problem like global warming, as opposed to something that might be more volatile like the geopolitical effects of Middle East oil consumption, might be starting to shift people’s perspectives about how they factor in fuel economy.

CHW: What strategies does the auto industry use to influence consumer decision making in terms of choosing less fuel efficient vehicles?

LP: The auto industry has consistently taken the position that people make their decision about a vehicle based on a variety of factors and one of the factors is “peak performance,”—the maximum possible zerotosixty acceleration or the towing capacity of a truck. It is fairly well supported that people are often swayed by peak performance but in reality people don’t really actualize that peak performance. For example, over 60% of truck owners never realize the peak performance even one time in their entire ownership of that vehicle. For twenty years or more, the auto industry has really been pushing this idea that you’re getting a better value because you’re going to get this truck that could tow a huge boat but you don’t own a boat and you have no need for this kind of towing capacity. And the auto industry has really consistently pushed this idea that people won’t be willing to trade for a smaller vehicle. But Porsche made this announcement just this week that they’re going to start offering hybrid versions of their vehicles. Now this is highly unusual because these are performance vehicles. Porsche has consistently paid fines for noncompliance with fuel economy standards and so I think that the argument by the auto industry that they can’t provide the same kinds of performance characteristics just doesn’t really hold water in light of these developments that have come as a result of new regulations.

CHW: Is this particular to the US?

LP: There is some perception that in the United States we want these huge SUVs and pickup trucks. But what’s interesting is that there have been several recent studies in Europe that have supported the idea that even though fuel economy standards, or greenhouse gas emission standards which are sort of interchangeable, have gotten more stringent in Europe, the popularity of larger vehicles has increased. In affluent western European countries you’re seeing an increasing number of people purchasing SUVs. I think that probably the bigger determining factor in terms of saying that this is a uniquely American problem, which I don’t really believe that it is, is just that people in the United States for the most part live more spreadout than they do in most places in the world. The average size of vehicles in densely populated urban areas in the United States is pretty much the same as what you would see in Europe.

CHW: One of the arguments the auto industry makes against improving fuel economy and reducing emissions is that the cost would be prohibitive and that this cost would then be passed down to consumers. How legitimate is this argument?

LP: Well it depends on what changes you’re demanding. If you’re demanding that auto makers convert every vehicle into a hybrid, then you might have a pretty good argument that it would be cost prohibitive. And a big part of that is the cost you’re paying for a battery that’s still relatively expensive to manufacture. But as batteries technologies continue to get better and as lithium ion batteries become more viable, that’s going to reduce weight, improve efficiency and reduce costs. The auto industry has been given a tremendous amount of lead time, but they have not been making incremental changes since the 1985 standard were actualized. And not every vehicle has to get 40% better fuel economy next year; over the next ten years the fleet of vehicles has to achieve 40% better fuel economy on the whole. Adding some of these technologies to vehicles would be fairly cost prohibitive, but the vehicles that need the most help are typically the most expensive to begin with. In order to make this incremental improvement in something like a Ford Focus you might add some initial cost to that car but you’re going to have a lifetime savings in terms of fuel cost which is going to get better and better. As the price of oil continues to rise the benefit of burning less fuel is going to get better and better. So I don’t think that the cost argument is necessarily as weighty as the auto industry has made it.

CHW: What is the auto industry’s current stance on the relationship between tailpipe emissions and global warming?

LP: Often when you talk to somebody from the auto industry they’ll talk about how criteria pollutants emissions of the newest vehicles are incredibly low. But when you talk about carbon dioxide, the only way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, at least from the tailpipe, is to burn less fuel or burn a fuel that is lower in carbon. They generally try to downplay the relationship between tailpipe emissions and global warming, but I don’t think that anybody in the industry is saying that carbon dioxide doesn’t cause global warming and that global warming isn’t happening. And a lot of times they also focus on “well look at this concept vehicle that’s ten or fifteen years down the line.”

CHW: Does the auto industry take any particular position on the relationship between tailpipe emissions and public health?

LP: Well once again, they’re going to discuss the issue of tailpipe emissions in terms of criteria pollutants which have certainly decreased a great deal. You’re seeing lower levels of nitrogenoxides and sulfuroxides and then by extension lower levels of ground level ozone, and ground level ozone is typically the biggest contributor to asthma and other kinds of auto emissions related health problems. But I don’t think that they like to talk about emissions at all. So they won’t say something like “there’s no link between auto emissions and health problems” but they will focus on the fact that through improved aftertreatment and exhaust systems you’re starting to see criteria pollutant emissions that are really pretty low, almost zero. An ultralow emission vehicle is really going to have nearzero criteria pollutant emissions, which doesn’t really affect carbon dioxide. But then carbon dioxide is, at least at current concentrations, not really a public health threat, at least in terms of asthma and inhalation effects. There are certainly health effects related to the problems of global warming.

CHW: What alliances do you see for public health researchers and auto safety and emission standards activists?

LP: There’s a lot of potential for interdisciplinary action related to these huge problems of energy policy and global warming and the places where energy policy intersects with public health. I think that every new solution obviously brings with it new problems. There are concerns about the toxicity of batteries they might use for hybrids. You’ve got a benefit in reduced vehicle emissions, but when you dispose of the batteries they’re generally made of stuff that isn’t necessarily super clean. There will need to be a really aggressive battery recycling program. I think that these are not insurmountable obstacles but certainly there’s always potential for people who come from different viewpoints to work together on these issues.

CHW: Finally, I’d like to ask you about the presidential elections. Do any of the Presidential candidates favor tougher national emission standards and are any of them focusing on that issue?

LP: All of the candidates on the Democratic side have recommended fuel economy standards that are stronger than what was passed in this latest energy bill. As far as I know, no candidate on either side, Democrat or Republican, has taken a position specifically targeting emissions from vehicles. There are a variety of strategies that have been talked about, one of which would be a carbon tax which would then make the price of gasoline more expensive. That might convince consumers to consider improved fuel efficiency. And another proposal to reduce vehicle emissions is a low carbon fuel standard, which is a performance standard for fuels in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

CHW: Thanks very much for your time.

Commentary: Shifting priorities in public health: from changing lifestyles to changing political, economic, and social circumstances

Public health researchers seeking to focus greater attention on the role of corporate practices in health and disease often encounter the argument that the only significant modifiable determinant of health is lifestyle.  In this commentary, social epidemiologist Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health makes the case for a broader perspective.

The typical public health observational study goes something like this.  We identify a disease of interest.  We then try to figure out if an exposure is indeed associated with this disease. We conduct a study and collect data from participants.  We then use a variety of increasingly sophisticated analytic tools to isolate the relationship between the exposure of interest and the disease.  Once we have identified such an association with some confidence, we recommend a behavior change that will limit exposure to that particular factor.  For example, here is the conclusion from a recent, well done study aimed at understanding several factors that may cause cardiovascular disease: “strategies should focus on reducing obesity, in particular through physical activity, elimination of cigarette smoking, and moderation of alcohol intake” (1).

In other words, to reduce heart disease, we need a lifestyle change, to eat less, exercise more, and smoke less, in order to become healthier.  These types of conclusions come from peer-reviewed academic papers published in reputable public health journals. In many ways, these recommendations arise naturally and logically from the dominant public health paradigm.  We understand the factors that make us sick and now all we have to do is to change the way we live so that we are no longer exposed to those factors.

Although it is seldom stated in this manner, the public health literature veritably shrugs in disbelief when contemplating these issues, suggesting “how could they possibly keep smoking (or drinking too much etc) when we tell them over and over how bad that is for their health?” Or, “how could they possibly continue having such an unhealthy lifestyle?”

Tobacco as a Lifestyle Problem

Let’s look back at one of the great triumphs of modern public health science to provide us with hints about our lifestyle and whether we truly can do something about it.  All students of public health well know the details of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rightly identified as modern pubic health’s greatest triumph—the identification of tobacco smoking as a risk for disease(2).  In the middle of the twentieth century a few physicians-turned-epidemiologists used follow-up cohort studies to show that cigarette smoking was associated with lung cancer and heart disease.   These studies led to other comparable studies confirming these findings.  There was opposition to this observation at first, primarily from cigarette companies, but, with the production of the surgeon general’s report on smoking in 1964, the fact that smoking causes poor health in many forms became accepted within public health circles.  What followed of course was a dramatic burgeoning public health effort to help eliminate smoking.  A large industry grew around health education programs to teach all of us about the adverse consequences of smoking and countless education programs aimed to help smokers quit.

Smoking prevalence dropped throughout North America from 42% in 1965 to 25.5% in 1990 to a current prevalence of approximately 20.8% percent (3).

Clearly, public health research and practice “saved the day”.   Through careful empiric research, we were able to identify a health menace and we have, ever since, been devoting energy to help eradicate this menace. One cannot walk through any major US urban area without seeing a plethora of health education messages touting the evils of smoking, offering Quit-Lines and other aides to quite smoking and, increasingly, rather horrifying pictures of the pathologic consequences of smoking aimed at scaring us into not smoking.

But we, or at least 1 in every 5 of us, keep smoking. In fact, we keep participating in many of these factors that we surely must by now know cause poor health, including 1 in 5 of us drink too much on a regular basis, 1 in 3 of us are overweight, and 1 in 3 of us own firearms (4).  All of these factors are well recognized to be among the leading causes of death in this country (5).

Why do people choose unhealthy lifestyles? 

Which then brings us to the issue at hand. Why is it that so many patently harmful factors in our lifestyle continue despite public health’s valiant effort?   The existing literature suggests three common answers.  First, some posit that there are psychological reasons, including pleasure in risk taking and defying conventional wisdom, in continuing to embrace unhealthy lifestyles.   Second, some argue that public health professionals are not as good as we need to be at conveying what unhealthy lifestyles should be avoided. A third explanation asserts that ultimately people do not care much about being healthy and would rather do as they please without regard for health.  All these can be summarized to say that fundamentally, people choose the lifestyle they want, irrespective of what public health might say.

While these (and other)  explanations all have some validity,  they should matter little to us as public health professionals because a focus on lifestyle is simply not the most efficient or effective approach for public health to take.  Why?

Perhaps another example, one that contrasts with the previous smoking one, illustrates the point. Another of the CDC’s great recent achievements in public health is the reduction in motor vehicle injuries and deaths (2). As the automobile took the US by storm by the middle of the twentieth century, the rates of motor vehicle accidents and deaths were soaring. There were 93,803 unintentional motor vehicle related deaths in 1960, for example (5).  Clearly, our lifestyle choice to drive was also killing us. One approach would have been for the public health establishment to urge every American to drive less, to walk instead or take mass transit – to change their transportation life style.  But that is not what happened.

Instead, a consumer movement emerged that demanded the automobile industry to make safer cars  and Congress passed laws to make that happen, usually over the objection of the automobile industry and with significant compromises.   For example, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at any speed (1965) resulted in changes that substantially changed the contribution of motor vehicle accidents to our burden of disease morbidity and mortality.  However, in stark contrast to the tobacco example, the focus of the changes aimed at reducing car-related disease was not on the “users” of the car but rather on the circumstances of the driving.  Certainly driver education improved, but it is widely recognized that the greatest contributor to the change in car-related morbidity and mortality were safer cars, safer roads and better enforcement of traffic regulations aimed at making those collisions that were inevitable less injurious. As a result, although there are now more than 200 million drivers on the roads on a regular basis, compared to under 90 million in 1960, the rates of motor vehicle accidents in the US is less than 1.5 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled compared to approximately 5 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1960 (6, 7).  In other words, we did not really change our lifestyle (driving) at all (in fact, we are driving much more than ever), but still improved our health. We can argue about whether a different approach might have led to more sustainable and better environmental outcomes, but in this case changing corporate practices rather than lifestyle led to dramatic improvements in public health.

In contrast, until the last decade or so, tobacco control focused primarily on changing individual behavior.  As new policies were passed to ban smoking in public places and increase tobacco sales taxes, the declines in tobacco smoking accelerated, showing the value of integrating strategies to change individual lifestyle and policy.

Both these examples in fact reinforce the observation that changing lifestyles is immeasurably difficult, requiring not only efforts to change deeply held beliefs and practices one person at a time but also to continue to “treat”  the new recruits into tobacco use, or eating or drinking too much.  Thus, perhaps changing lifestyles should not be the point of what we do in public health but rather changing circumstances should be. Perhaps it is time to recognize that changing lifestyles is in fact very difficult and that a more efficient and effective approach would be to change the political, economic, and social circumstances within which  people live their life as they please, to the fullest. This strategy also acknowledges that people do not choose lifestyles in a vacuum but are influenced by corporate practices such as advertising and product design, by public policies, and by the “opportunity structures” of our market economy.

Objections to a critique of lifestyle

This argument can lead to complaints along three grounds.  First, some would object to leaving individuals to their own lifestyle choices within a healthier environment as insufficient given that some lifestyles are inherently injurious to self or others.  Second, some critics might assert that if public health were to take responsibility for the circumstances within which we live, it would contribute to a “nanny state”, highly unpopular in a country where individual autonomy is prized almost above all other virtues.  Third, some public health experts believe that it is outside our professional domain to seek to change economic, political, and social circumstances. In my view, each of these criticisms is in fact wrong. Let us tackle each one.

We cannot avoid dealing with lifestyles; some lifestyles are always harmful. It may seem that some lifestyles are simply harmful in an absolute sense, but is this really the case?  Let’s return to the cigarette example.  We now know that tobacco companies worked hard to make cigarettes more addictive to increase consumption and therefore profit. From the point of view of addictiveness and carcinogenicity, they are harmful by design.  To take another example, people choose high fat, high calorie food in part because that is what has been most advertised and made most available.  In these two cases, the health consequences of lifestyle “choices” are the direct result of efforts to make a profit.  With different food or tobacco policies, the default choices could be very different.  So what do public health professionals work to change—the environments and policies that make some lifestyle choices unhealthy or the behaviors themselves?

Public health cannot tackle political, economic, or social circumstances because that threatens individual autonomy. Would a public health focus on changing the circumstances within which we live mean that public health would reduce individual autonomy?  Of course it could but the critical point is that doing so would not be any different than what is already done to our individual autonomy by forces other than public health.  We do not choose the cigarettes we smoke—we smoke cigarettes that are made for us by corporations acting under a set of their own incentives (primarily to maximize profits) that are often not aligned with the goal of improving our health.  We often have little choice about the food we eat.  Recent research shows that those living in poor neighborhoods have more access to unhealthy foods and less to healthy ones. Not surprisingly, they then eat those available foods.  Similarly, for the most part drivers do not choose to drive in safer cars, on safer roads than we used to drive on 50 years ago. These choices are made for us by political, economic, and social forces that are larger than ourselves. It has always been so and it will always be so. Urging public health to tackle reshaping our circumstances would introduce a player among these forces that shape our circumstances whose interest is in the promotion of health rather than in the promotion of profit (as in the case of corporations) or electoral success (as in the case of political parties).  The choice is not whether parents should have sole rights to make health decisions about their children – our world is too complicated for that.  Rather, the question is who do Americans want looking out for their children’s health—public health professionals or McDonalds?  Public health professionals should welcome an opportunity to argue they will better protect autonomy than Ronald McDonald.

Public health simply is not equipped to tackle changing contexts. This third objection is a plaintive one—but what can public health do?  Public health arises from medicine, which is concerned with the health of individuals. The forces of public health are much weaker than are political, economic, or social forces.  How could we possibly compete?  It is self-evident that unless we try to compete we cannot succeed. It is also true that challenging contextual forces that shape health as a central focus would require substantial retooling of the public health profession.  It would require re-thinking how we teach our students, the goals and methods of professional practice, and the value of being well-regarded by all sectors of society.  But other professions have been able to conduct similar retooling. Why then not public health?  For example, many US State Attorneys General were, in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the eradication of organized crime.  This scarcely remains the focus on AG efforts nationwide today. In fact, AG efforts have been, in the past decade, much more focused on curtailing illegal financial sector activity than on what the AG offices used to work on a decade ago. Surely such focus shifting could not have been easy. But it happened, and arguably the law-abiding citizenry is better for it.

Another approach to public health is possible

Similarly, public health can decide that the old target, lifestyle, is no longer, or perhaps never was, such a fruitful target for our efforts, and move toward another target, the circumstances within which we live, the political, economic, and corporate practices that shape our environment, with the goals of effecting change here in order to promote the health of the public.   The objections to such an approach rest primarily on a lack of imagination on our part that we can indeed achieve a change in focus in the profession.  I argue that such a change is not optional, as much as necessary, for public health achievement in the twenty-first century.

Sandro Galea is the editor of Macrosocial Determinants of Health (Springer 2007) and can be reached at sgalea@umich.edu.

 

References

1.  Costanza MK, Cayanis E, Ross BM, Flaherty MS, Alvin GB, Das K, Morabia A. Relative contributions of genes, environments, and interactions to blood lipid concentrations in adult populations. American Journal of Epidemiology2005;161(8):714-724.

2. CDC. Ten great public health achievements–United States, 1900-1999. MMWR 1999;48:241-3.

3CDC. Surveillance for Selected Tobacco-Use Behaviors — United States, 1900-1994. MMWR 1994; 43: 5-6.

4.  Mokdad AH,  et al. Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000.  JAMA. 2004;291(10):1238-45.

5.  Okoro et al. Prevalence of household firearms and firearm-storage practices in the 50 states and the District of Columbia: findings from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2002. Pediatrics. 2005;166(3):e370-e376

6.  CDC.  Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Motor-Vehicle Safety: A 20th Century Public Health Achievement. MMWR 1999; 48(18);369-374.

7.  Fatality Analysis Reporting System.  Encyclopedia.  Available at http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

 
 

Local, National and Global Action Against Motor Vehicle Pollution: Making healthy breathing a right

According to the World Health Organization, about 800,000 people die each year from the effects of air pollution. In the United States, 60,000 premature deaths can be attributed to air pollution and automobile exhaust is the largest single source, reports the American Heart Association. Despite recent progress in reducing air pollution, 160 million tons of air pollution were released into the air in the United States in 2002 and more than 152 million Americans now live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate matter, the two most prevalent of the principal air pollutants. Air pollution contributes to a variety of diseases including cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and stroke. In many developing world cities, the rapid increase in the number of automobiles and lax air pollution standards make automobile exhaust a growing threat to health. Automobile pollution also contributes to global warming, providing another rationale for action.

These grim statistics demonstrate the benefits of reducing air pollution. Since motor vehicle exhaust is a major contributor to air pollution, decreasing what comes out of the tailpipes of cars, busses and trucks has become a focus for public health action. Recently, advocates and policy makers have initiated efforts at the local, national and global levels to clean the air we breathe. An examination of these activities may help to identify the relative advantages and limitations of working at each level.

 Community Groups Document Perils of Air Pollution in Milan and New York, Demand Change.

“We want people to rebel and politicians to pay attention. This is really bad for health.”

Concerned about the impacts of air pollution on health, community organizations such as Parents Against Pollution in Milan, Italy and both West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) and the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative in New York City are fighting to clean up urban air. These groups link youth researchers, scientists, medical professionals and lawyers to take on both the motor vehicle industry and city planners, calling for cleaner air, improved public health and environmental justice.

In Milan, Italy, where the levels of air pollution are among the worst in Europe, “Parents Against Pollution” has armed young people with portable monitors to measure ultrafine pollution particles. Participating scientists helped to design the measurement strategies and interpret the results. Sixteen year old Tommaso Abbate wore the monitor for 24 hours. During that period, his average exposure to air pollution levels was 127 micrograms per cubic meter, 117 g higher than the standard of 10 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a safe target. Responding to these findings, Anna Gerometta , President of Parents Against Pollution stated, “We want people to rebel and politicians to pay attention. This is really bad for health.” Earlier this spring, Milan exceeded both the WHO and European Union (EU) standards for particulate air pollution on 80 days. Italy, home to Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lamborghini and others, was warned by the EU that its current emission reduction plan is inadequate and the city will face billions of euros in fines if it fails to remedy the situation.

Milan is taking notice. Milan now imposes “car-free Sundays” in which the use of cars and motor scooters is banned throughout the better part of the day and public transportation is increased to compensate. In order to further reduce air pollution and improve health, Parents Against Pollution would also like to see free public transportation for children, dedicated bike lanes and special lanes for buses, and a charge for cars entering the city center.

In New York City, the greatest source of air pollution comes from vehicle exhaust. In Harlem, WE ACT and the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative, two community organizations, have demonstrated the disproportionate effect that air pollution has on residents’ health. A sanitation truck depot and six of the seven NYC bus depots operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York (MTA) are located in Harlem. (The MTA operates public transportation in the New York metropolitan region.) At these depots, which house more than a third of the city’s fleet of buses, vehicles are parked, repaired, fueled and relaunched each day. The asthma rate for children in Harlem is 25%, one of the highest ever documented in the United States and considerably higher than the national childhood average of 7%. Harlem and the Bronx have the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in New York City and African Americans and Latinos are hospitalized at a rate of of 3 – 5.5 times that of whites. The neighborhood has consistently exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter, likely as a result of the high concentration of bus depots, nearby commuter highways, local traffic, as well as regional upwind emissions, incinerators and industrial facilities. Local traffic is particularly an issue given that Amsterdam and Broadway avenues – two of the major north-south thoroughfares in Manhattan – pass through the center of Harlem. These routes are the main truck routes for transporting goods in the area since trucks are prohibited from traveling on the highways that run east and west of Manhattan.

A partnership between the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harlem Hospital Center Department of Pediatrics led to the Harlem Children’s Zone Asthma Initiative. The goal of the project is one of intervention and the Initiative seeks to improve the health of the estimated 13,000 residents of Central Harlem. Initial screening resulted in rates far higher than initially expected and study researchers ultimately found rates of asthma four times the national average and three times the national average for African Americans. Researchers involved in the study stated “Childhood asthma in Central Harlem is not only highly prevalent, but severe.”

WE ACT challenges the structural conditions that cause high rates of respiratory distress and other health conditions in Harlem and fights to keep pollution out of poor and people of color communities. Founded in 1988, WE ACT works to improve environmental policy, public health and quality of life in communities of color. The organization challenged the MTA regarding its use of diesel buses which are primarily housed in upper Manhattan and emit 30-100 times more particles than do gasoline engines with emission control devices. Working with Columbia University researchers to demonstrate the impact of air pollution on Harlem, WE ACT measured air pollution levels in the neighborhood over the course of five days at four intersections in Harlem. The group found rates of fine particle concentrations ranging from 22-69 micrograms per cubic meter, far higher than the standard proposed by the 1998 Environmental Protection Agency of 15 micrograms per cubic meter. As inMilan, WE ACT also worked with youth researchers to demonstrate that young people in Harlem are exposed to levels of diesel exhaust known to contribute to respiratory health problems.

Although WE ACT has not so far been successful in its legal actions against the MTA, the Authority has substantially reduced the age of its fleet of buses and cut emissions by 85%. Still, WE ACT has demanded that the city close one of the bus depots, upgrade the fleet to the use of hybrid vehicles at all uptown sites, and relocate some of the remaining depots to other locations in the city. These battles continue.

Researchers, Activists Demonstrate Importance of Clean Air for Lifelong Health, While Auto Industry Opposes Stricter Fuel Standards, Sways Lawmakers

Public health researchers and advocates have urged the federal government and the auto industry to reduce automobile air pollution both to prevent pollution-related illnesses and, more recently, to reduce global warming. In the last two decades, the incidence of asthma has increased and if current patterns continue, it is estimated that the rate of asthma will double in the United States by 2020, affecting 29 million individuals. Although the auto industry publicly shows support for improved emission standards, their efforts to stall stricter emissions bills in the United States and their financial and political support for lawmakers who sought to weaken the bill illustrates that clean air and better health are still not top priorities.

Within the United States, emissions from cars and trucks accounts for approximately one third of greenhouse gases. Thus, researchers, environmentalists and community health activists are increasingly joining forces to make the point that better fuel economy not only reduces the need for foreign oil but reduces emissions that are linked to both environmental and public health concerns. These groups point to the particular impact that pollution has on children. Combustion related air pollution is linked to cancer and serious respiratory and cardiovascular concerns for both children and adults and there is evidence to suggest that the fetus and infants are more vulnerable to environmental toxins which can affect pre and postnatal development. A Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health study found in preliminary analyses that 46% of infants between birth and three months of age experienced wheezing and other respiratory symptoms as did 54% of babies at six months and 50% at nine months. Children who live near busy streets are more likely than their peers who live in quieter areas to have health problems, including asthma and lung disease, stunted lung development and premature death. While asthma has many causes, nationally, children who live in low-income neighborhoods, areas more likely to be near highways and other high congestion zones, are four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than children living in wealthier neighborhoods. Health problems developed in childhood continue throughout adulthood and increase their risk of serious breathing problems.

Although new research evidence and health advocacy have called attention to the health and environmental benefits of less polluting and more fuel efficient motor vehicles, U.S. fuel efficiency standards have not been raised since 1983. However, in late June, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would require that new cars, SUVs and light trucks to achieve an average of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020 compared to the average of 25 mpg today. Although the Senate bill (known as the Stevens Amendment) passed, it was opposed by House and by Senate Democrats from Michigan, who at the behest of the auto industry looked to weaken the proposal.

Despite the fact that the auto industry has admitted that increased fuel economy standards are necessary, automakers complained that the increases proposed in the June Senate bill were too strict and not economically feasible. Dave McCurdy, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, issued a statement in which he commended the efforts of Senators who “worked to eliminate provisions of concern in the energy bill.” Arguing that the proposed increased standards would reduce auto safety, cost jobs and hurt the economy, Steven Douglas, Director of Environmental Affairs for a consortium of auto manufacturers, suggested officials move gradually toward a national increase in fuel economy and reduced emissions. Automakers were especially opposed to a provision of the bill that combined light trucks and the passenger fleet into one group, setting a common emissions standard which manufacturers claimed was economically untenable. Throughout the 1990s, the auto industry depended on high profit, high pollution SUVs and light trucks to make their money. Even though this strategy has contributed to the near collapse of the US auto industry, Detroit automakers find it difficult to kick the habit of depending on big polluting vehicles for their profits.

Consumer group Public Citizen expressed criticism about the Senate bill in a press release. In addition to not setting mandatory emission standards, the bill would allow auto makers to produce vehicles that achieve less than 35 mpg if they could justify the lower standard based on a cost-benefit analysis. Public Citizen noted that cost-benefit analyses have often been used and abused by the auto industry and thus it seems unlikely that automakers would find raising emission standards to be economically feasible, despite the fact that foreign manufacturers manufacturers have already met and exceeded such standards. The House is currently working on their version of the bill and some reports indicate that a final vote may be delayed until later in the year.. Regardless of which version is ultimately passed, it seems unlikely that strong, mandatory emission standards will be set. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook stated, “Even if it were mandatory, the 35 mpg target is not strong enough. The best-in-class fuel economy performers on the road today are already well on their way to achieving fuel economy in excess of this target. We can do much better much sooner.”

Making clean air a right: Next steps?

Through community-based organizing and alliances with researches, local groups such as WE ACT and Parents Against Pollution have mobilized their communities on the health impact of motor vehicle pollution. They have convinced city officials to take action to reduce pollution, such as car-free Sundays in Milan and the MTA’s commitment to upgrade their fleet of diesel buses. Both groups have also successfully crated new alliances among young people, researchers, and community organizations. To date, however, these local organizations have not yet been able to put direct pressure on the motor vehicle industry to design safer, less polluting vehicles.

On the other hand, national campaigns such as the one led by Public Citizen and JumpStart Ford, a joint project of Global Exchange, the Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society, have elicited some response from the industry. Through internet campaigns, letter writing, media campaigns and direct action, these organizations have been able to draw the attention of manufacturers and have had some success in changing corporate practices, such as JumpStart Ford’s “Adopt a Dealer” campaign. However, without strong community-based links, national campaigns may be less able to motivate individuals to take sustained action or to put another pressure on Senators, Congressional representatives and a White House to overcome the powerful influence of the auto industry.

Growing local, national and global concerns about air pollution, health and global warming have sparked new action to reduce air pollution and create healthier and more sustainable forms of transportation. On the one hand, the creativity, passion and tactical flexibility of pollution control activists have created the potential for a movement that can challenge an industry that values its profits more highly than public health and governments that seem reluctant to make clean air a basic human right On the other hand, to date these activists have yet to forge a framework or policy agenda that can link these different levels and arenas of action. Only when clean air advocates achieve the same vertical and horizontal integration that the global automobile industry practices will they be able to achieve their health and environmental objectives.

Photo credits:
Photo 1: Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.
Photo 2: Marc Baptiste, copyright 1997 West Harlem Environmental Action
Photo 3: Environmental Protection Agency

Spotlight on Corporate Practices: What is the Future for US Auto Industry?

In the recent past, the US auto industry has failed on two critical fronts. It has been unable to compete successfully with Japanese and European auto producers and it has not made fuel-efficient, safe vehicles. As a result, the US auto industry is in deep financial trouble and American cars pollute more and are less safe than those made elsewhere. While many factors contribute to the auto industry’s problems, in this case the decision by auto industry executives to sacrifice public health for profits by focusing on SUVs rather than on safer, more efficient cars ended up hurting rather than helping their own bottom line. Now, however, two recent developments provide advocates, public officials and the auto industry with new impetus to solve both their financial and public health problems. A recent Supreme Court decision and new public opinion polls that show auto worker and public support for more effective public oversight of the auto industry provide advocates with an opportunity to mobilize political support for federal action to encourage the auto industry to make cars that pollute less.

Supreme Court Rules Against Bush Administration and EPA on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

On April 3, 2007 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violated the Clean Air Act when it refused to regulate new vehicle emission standards as a way to reduce air pollutants connected with global warming. The case, Commonwealth of Massachusetts et al v. Environmental Protection Agency, dates from 1999. It began when The International Center for Technology Assessment and other groups petitioned the EPA to set stricter greenhouse gas emissions standards for new cars. The EPA declined the petition four years later and argued that it did not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The agency further asserted that even if it did have such authority, it still might refuse to act because the linkages between greenhouse gases and global warming were still scientifically uncertain. In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rebuked the Bush Administration, finding that the EPA had acted illegally and had violated the Clean Air Act. In a press release issued by the International Center for Technology Assessment, legal director Joseph Mendelson stated “The Court recognized that the debate over global warming has ended and that states and individuals are suffering from global warming injuries and impacts right now.” The decision is being hailed as a landmark environmental ruling.

Survey Shows Majority of Michigan Autoworkers Favor Auto Fuel-Efficiency

On February 28, 2007, the Civil Society Institute (CSI) and 40MPG.org released new research that showed that 67% of Michigan autoworkers agreed with the statement that Washington could “help U.S. automakers be more competitive by increasing the federal fuel-efficiency standard to 40 miles per gallon.” The survey of Michigan residents conducted for CSI by Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) also found that 84% of Michigan residents agreed that the U.S. auto industry was in trouble. When asked to identify the top problems the auto industry was facing, respondents identified the failure of the industry to offer the best technology, including improved fuel efficiency, as the most serious issue. The second highest ranking issue was the over production of fuel-inefficient vehicles, including SUVs. More than half of the respondents strongly agreed that higher federal fuel efficiency standards were needed to reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce global warming and conserve energy.

The results of this survey were consistent with a prior national survey conducted by ORC for CSI and other CSI/ 40MPG.org research. According to the results of this earlier survey, four out of 5 Americans, including 76% of Republicans and Independents and 86% of Democrats, supported the idea of “Congress taking the lead to achieve the highest possible fuel efficiency as quickly as possible.” While the American public clearly supports the idea of fuel efficient cars, CSI and 40MPG.org’s research illustrates that the number of fuel efficient vehicles (defined as those vehicles with gas mileage of at least 40mpg) dropped from 5 to 2 vehicles between 2005 and 2007. Meanwhile, overseas during the same period, the number of fuel efficient cars available to consumers increased from 86 to 113 demonstrating a clear fuel efficiency gap between U.S. and foreign vehicles. Nearly two thirds of the fuel efficient cars available overseas are produced by U.S. auto manufacturers or foreign manufacturers which do a high volume of sales in the United States. The majority of Americans (88%) felt that U.S. consumers should have access to these vehicles. CSI/40MPG.org’s research indicates that given this support, there is a very large market – 2.5 million U.S. consumers – for these vehicles. While the technology for more fuel efficient cars clearly exists and consumer demand for such vehicles is high, U.S. automakers have failed to adopt different technology. Furthermore, the U.S. government has failed to enact federal fuel efficiency standards that would support its development. With gas pricespredicted to hit nearly $4 a gallon this summer, this reluctance seems all the more troubling.

40 MPG.org is an advocacy campaign to make US motor vehicles more fuel efficient. It is sponsored by The Civil Society Institute, a non profit group that seeks to catalyze public mobilization on important policy issues.

Jumpstart Ford

As part of its mission, Jumpstart Ford works to move the company from its current “worst polluter status” toward acting as a role model in a movement that partners corporations with campaigns and advocacy organizations to achieve a cleaner future for America’s auto manufacturers and consumers.

The campaign’s decision to focus directly on the Ford Corporation rather than on regulatory change follows a trend among environmental and public health advocates, but the campaign is by no means soft in its demands, which include pressuring Ford to produce a fleet of cars and SUVs that average 50 mpg by 2010 and zero emissions by 2020.  In the summer of 2006, the campaign’s website reported new blockades at Ford mega dealerships in Ft. Lauderdale and Los Angeles, as well as the founding of a summer “Freedom from Oil Action camp” which taught new activists the ins and outs of targeting the automobile industry for change in the interest of public and environmental health and safety.  Jumpstart Ford sees America’s oil dependence not only as a threat to human and environmental health, but also as a threat to national security.
During the November 2006 midterm elections, many candidates ran on a platform of lowering America’s dependence on foreign oil, thereby strengthening domestic security.  Given the frequency with which this platform was presented, Jumpstart Ford’s strategy of focusing on public and environmental health, safety and national security, is poised to have more impact on Ford Motor Company’s practices in the near future.