Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 26, 2021 (Revised).
There is overwhelming peer-reviewed scientific evidence that the Earth is getting warmer. This is indicated by melting of the polar ice cap, rising ocean levels, more frequent coastal flooding, nearly unbearable summer temperatures, the increasing intensity of forest fires, droughts in parts of the U.S. southwest and threats to hydroelectric power generation. These conditions demonstrate the seriousness of the climate change issue.
In March 2018, a lawsuit for damages and the costs associated with climate change was filed by several California cities against five of the largest investor-owned oil companies, including Chevron Corporation. Theodore Boutrous, the attorney representing Chevron, made an important admission that was reported by many news outlets. Boutrous stated, “Chevron accepts the consensus in the scientific communities on climate change. There’s no debate about climate science. It’s economic activity that creates the demand for energy, and that leads to emissions [of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases].”
ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum, the other defendants in the lawsuit, submitted briefs to the court agreeing with Chevron’s statement. Climate change is real.
The marketplace is transitioning away from fossil fuels with the growth of electric vehicles, solar and wind power and the replacement of coal with natural gas (a much lower emitter of carbon dioxide) for power plant generated electric power. The pace must be stepped up to affect the rate of climate change. The transition will not end the use of fossil fuels. There is no practical or economic replacement for fossil fuels in many uses.
Legislation that led to the phaseout of lead from gasoline and the increase in new passenger vehicle fuel efficiency both provide instructive lessons in addressing the issue of climate change.
Removal of lead from gasoline
Quoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child’s health, including damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.”
Tetra-ethyl lead was added to gasoline as a less expensive way to boost octane than through oil refinery processes. The lead and oil refining industries fought hard to prevent the removal of lead from gasoline. They had no vision of a better future.
As a result of EPA regulations in 1973 that followed passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, lead was gradually phased out from gasoline. In a strong demonstration of bipartisan unity, the Clean Air Act was passed in the Senate by a vote of 73-0 while the House vote was 374-1. As lead levels in gasoline dropped, the percentage of children 1-5 years of age with elevated lead levels fell from 88.2% during 1976-1980, to 1.6% during 1999-2002.
Increasing passenger vehicle fuel efficiency
The auto industry failed to act in the interests of both its customers and the nation when it didn’t adopt an aggressive strategy to raise the fuel efficiency of new passenger vehicles after the 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which significantly raised the cost of gasoline.
The embargo resulted in Congress passing the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975, with the objective of raising the fuel efficiency of new passenger vehicles from the then current 13.5 mpg. The Senate passed the Act 58-40, while the House vote was 300-103. The auto industry fought hard against this legislation even after it was passed. They had no vision of a better future.
By 2020, fuel efficiency had risen to 29.5 mpg – even when including less fuel-efficient SUVs. The leaders of the auto industry should have acted in the best interests of their customers and our country, rather than have action legislated by Congress.
Addressing climate change
Rejoining the Paris Climate accords in February 2021 is a step in the right direction. Congress will need to legislate climate change goals. Any climate change legislation should include transition help for those whose livelihoods may be economically impacted by this legislation.
Congressional legislation removed lead from gasoline and increased the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles. Both legislative actions improved our quality of life. We are very fortunate that the lead, oil and auto industries didn’t prevail in defeating both pieces of legislation.
The longer Democrats and Republicans have ideological differences on this issue instead of coming together as they did with the passage of the 1971 Clean Air Act, the longer climate change will impact our quality of life and that of generations to come. Congress needs to act now in America’s best interest as it did in 1973 and 1975. Our lawmakers need to show leadership and position our country for a better future.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.