A Battle Over Auto Emissions And The Global Climate Strike

11:55 minutes

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

a woman interviews a young female protester at a women's march
Sociologist Dana Fisher surveys the crowd at the Women’s March 2019. Credit: Stephanie S. Cordle/University of Maryland

This week, the Trump administration rolled back a Clean Air Act waiver that allowed California to set its own tailpipe emissions standards—stripping the state of the ability to declare stricter rules for automakers than the federal government’s own rules. The president tweeted that as a result of the move, “older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars.” 

So how does loosening regulations result in “extremely environmentally friendly cars?” Scott Waldman, White House reporter at E&E News in Washington, D.C., unpacks that update and other climate news in the Capitol, like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ new pro-climate message, and the dissolution of a panel meant to discredit climate science

Plus, we’ll check in on today’s global Climate Strike with social scientist Dana R. Fisher, who’s studying who turns up to protest—and what that might mean for the next election. Fisher observed the crowds at the demonstrations in Washington, D.C on Friday morning. See some of the scenes from the event below.  

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Segment Guests

Scott Waldman

Scott Waldman is the White House reporter for E&E News/Climatewire, based in Washington, DC.

Dana R. Fisher

Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland and author of American Resistance. 

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATO: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira FLATO.


The climate is changing. And because we need to deal with it now, we open the next chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. Our series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we as a planet and a people are adapting to the crisis. And it’s produced this week as part of the global cooperation covering climate now.

Coming up, we’ll talk about how the fashion industry is rebranding itself in the era of climate change. But first, we check in on the gatekeepers– the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings.

President Trump is wrestling with the state of California over who gets to define auto emission standards for the state. California or the federal government. This week, his administration dealt a provisional blow by rolling back a waiver that allowed California to set stricter regulations than the federal government, thus encouraging automakers to follow their lead.

The president tweeted that, as a result of the move, quote older, highly polluting cars will be replaced by new extremely environmentally friendly cars. How’s that going to work, exactly? Scott Waldman is the White House reporter at E&E News in Washington. Welcome back to Science Friday.

SCOTT WALDMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATO: Extremely, environmentally friendly cars by loosening the regulations. Unpack that for us, Scott.

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, cars are– just by the nature of technological innovation– getting more and more environmentally friendly already. But the Trump administration is going after the Obama administration’s plan to reduce– excuse me– the Obama administration plan to increase fuel efficiency of vehicles. And the Trump administration is rolling those back so that cars won’t get as much per gallon of gas in the future as they would have under the Obama plan.

So it’s certainly suspect if he’s claiming that they’re going to– his plan is better than Obama’s in terms of the impact on the environment.

IRA FLATO: But haven’t the four car companies already who agreed to this said they’re going to go along with it anyhow, voluntarily?

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s interesting. The actual companies themselves want to go with the Obama administration plan, or something closer to it. They, of course, were critical of the Obama mission administration plan, but then worked out a deal with the Obama administration to make cars more fuel efficient.

I think it’s really the oil and gas industry, the American Petroleum Institute, that is driving the Trump administration to roll back these emissions. It’s not the car companies themselves.

IRA FLATO: All right. Up next, we’ve talked about how the White House was assembling a, quote, a climate review panel with the goal of discrediting the accepted science of climate change. Now the panel is no more.

SCOTT WALDMAN: Uh, that’s right. It sort of got killed off. And we talked about that last time. It got cut off a couple months ago. But notably, Will Happer, Emeritus Princeton professor who was driving this at the National Security Council– he resigned last week after Bolton resigned. He insisted that it wasn’t a result of Bolton’s resignation, but rather that he had always planned to leave in a year, which I do believe is true.

However, he would have stayed on if this plan had moved forward. And what killed it off was pressure within the White House itself. Larry Kudlow was pressing against it. The president’s Science Advisor, Kelvin Droegemeier, was also pressuring to have this plan killed off.

And as was the campaign. They didn’t want, basically, a panel that would reflect on straight up science denial to be another point for Democrats to attack them on the campaign trail leading up to 2020.

IRA FLATO: Another story you wrote about is how former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is now talking about climate change.

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yeah, and it’s notable. For his whole career, he has viewed climate change as a threat. He says it does threaten national security. You know, he operates purely outside of politics in this realm.

And since he has left the White House about a year ago, he has been vocal about this. And particularly recently– he has a book that he’s published– that he’s promoting. But he said a couple of times that this is a major problem and we need to address it as a national security issue, which is actually indirect contradiction to what the White House is claiming.

IRA FLATO: So we’ve always heard that the Pentagon thinks of it as a threat to national security. And now James Mattis is backing that up.

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. And there was a study recently that showed he is going to be an influential voice on this issue. It shows that voters look to both military leaders as well as, believe it or not, Republicans, on climate issue, just because there’s simply more voters on that side that could be swayed.

IRA FLATO: Like now to turn to the climate strike kicking off today around the world. Here what it sounded like today as marchers made their way down Broadway in New York City as far as the eye could see.

CROWD: (CHANTING) What do we want?

Climate Justice!

When do we want it?


If we don’t get it–

Shut it down!

If we don’t get it–

Shut it down!

IRA FLATO: And I want to bring on someone who’s been studying who’s turning up for these protests here in the US and what that might mean for the next election. Dana R. Fisher is the author of the forthcoming book, American Resistance, and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Fisher.

DANA FISHER: Thank you for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATO: You’ve been studying the youth climate movement and Friday for Future, and you’ve been out there surveying people today in DC. What are you finding?

DANA FISHER: Well, I can tell you that there was a very big turnout here in Washington DC. I can tell you that we haven’t yet analyzed the data, because they’re still sitting on the tablets where we collected them. But we did get a sample of about 200 people in the crowd. And I can tell you that only about 3% of them were 12– were under the age of 12.

So most of them were older. But I can’t give you a distribution right now. I do know a lot about the organizers for all the events around the country, and I’m happy to tell you about that.

IRA FLATO: Please, go ahead.

DANA FISHER: Well, what I can tell you about the organizers– we’ve finished a survey of the organizers for all the events that were taking place around the country. That’s 633 events that were registered across the country.

And I can tell you that the people who were organizing these events, the median age for them was 25%– 25% of them– sorry, 25 years old. 25% of them were under the age of 18, and about 50% of them are under the age of 25. But what’s really interesting here is, over 75% of the people organizing these events will be eligible to vote in 2020.

IRA FLATO: You know, listening to the sounds from the protest in New York, it so reminds me of covering protests in the Vietnam era or the Civil Rights era. It sounds eerily the same.

DANA FISHER: Well, what’s interesting is that if you listen to those chants, you see that there are a lot of– there’s a lot of discussion going on in the climate movement around using more confrontational tactics. Not a peaceful march, but they’re talking now about shutting down. In fact, they’re planning on shutting down DC on Monday. I don’t know if they’ll be successful.

But one of the things I can tell you from surveying the organizers is that 61% of the organizers report in the past year having participated in direct action, which is more confrontational than a peaceful protest or strike. And that means that they’re armed and available to participate in more confrontational tactics, if and when they deem it necessary.

So there are lots of tools of democracy that they have available to them. And they’ll take advantage of them if they think that progress is not being made.

IRA FLATO: Well as usual, protests in the streets brings visibility to an issue. But what about people who say, well, the real way to affect change is to influence elected officials. Are these young people doing that as well?

DANA FISHER: Oh, they certainly are, Ira. In fact, one of the things that I’m really surprised by is I just– as you know, I finished analyzing some of these data last night. And I found that the people who have organized these events across the country are more civically engaged than even the activists who are involved in the movement in summer 2019, just a few months ago.

83% of them reported contacting their elected official in the past year. That is remarkably high, and statistically significantly higher than the general American population. 77% of them reported having attended a town hall meeting in the past year, which is also high. And that’s substantially higher than what the activists had reported back in the summer.

IRA FLATO: Are any of these people telling you who they favor in the upcoming election?

DANA FISHER: They did today, but I haven’t analyzed those data yet. So if you want to talk about that, I should have that data analyzed by tomorrow morning.

IRA FLATO: All right, we’ll make an appointment.

Scott, any indications in the polling whether climate is an issue for young Republican voters as well?

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yeah, I think we’re definitely seeing an increase in that. And we’re seeing even some groups being formed by young Republicans. There was one this week in DC, the American Conservation Coalition, testifying on Capitol Hill about the need for Republicans to do more on this.

I think if you go to somewhere like CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committiee, their annual gathering, you’ll hear young people talking about how they want– young conservatives, I should say– talking about how they want their leaders to actually address this issue.

Younger voters are turning away from just straight up climate denial. And I think they’re still scrambling up here in Capitol Hill to learn how to basically meet the needs of the younger voters. And also meet the needs of their older voters, many of whom have been convinced that climate science is wrong.

IRA FLATO: You’ve been following politics in Washington. I’m so surprised and shocked how fast climate has risen as a political issue in just two years.

SCOTT WALDMAN: I mean, I can’t say that enough. You know I’ve been covering this issue for a number of years. And it’s amazing that there’s not one, but two presidential candidate events that we’ve had in the last few weeks, one on CNN and the other on MSNBC, where candidates are talking just about climate.

I mean, even among Democrats in 2016, this was a relatively minor issue. Took a back burner to health care and immigration other more urgent concerns at the time. So to see it really vaulted forward this way is nothing short of extraordinary.

IRA FLATO: Dr. Fisher, it used to be that if you wanted to get people’s attention, you had to march on Washington. But it looks like now, we’re seeing more of these marchers scattered all around the country. Is this the era of the large gathering? That era on the mall over?

DANA FISHER: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s over, Ira. What I would say is that nowadays, a large scale march, which will take place in multiple locations simultaneously, is the beginning of activism, not the end of it.

And in fact, what I talk about in my new book, American Resistance, is how distributed organizing, which is made possible by all the digital tools that the young people are using so much of but we all have access to and embrace in many ways in our lives– those digital tools are making it possible for people across the country to coordinate at such a level that they can hold an event.

In Valdez, Alaska today is holding an event, a climate strike. And they’re using the same logo, and they’re using the same mobilization tools that they’re using here in Washington DC. And that’s thanks to this technology.

IRA FLATO: Yeah. So it’s a benefit of having one giant crowd of people. You see hundreds of them around the country, and then it amplifies the vision we see on the evening news.

I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us. Dana R. Fisher, author of the forthcoming book, American Resistance, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. And also, Scott Waldman, White House reporter at E&E News in Washington.

Thank you both for coming on and talking about the march today.

DANA FISHER: Thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATO: You’re welcome.

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