Whatever is causing it - and there is widespread and growing consensus that it is by and large human activity - global warming is a reality that demands recognition and remedy before any more time passes. To that end, President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a series of fuel-efficiency and emissions measures that represent a necessary departure from current rules.
Accounting for more than 25 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, vehicles are one primary contributor to climate change around the globe. Accordingly, there must be changes in how cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans use gasoline - despite long-standing reluctance from automakers and some lawmakers. In announcing the changes, Obama has taken an important and significant first step.
Under Obama's rules, the average fuel efficiency of the entire American vehicle fleet will increase 30 percent from today's actual average of 28 miles per gallon to a required 35.5 mpg. The rules represent a 40 percent jump in efficiency and cleanliness from what is required today. The crackdown on gas guzzling - and tailpipe emissions - will take place over four years, beginning in 2012 and when it is complete, aims to reduce the greenhouse gases vehicles spew by one-third. Those are bold changes in what has been, at best, a lackluster effort to comprehensively curb vehicles' contribution to climate change.
The rule comes as a relief to some in the auto industry who had previously been faced with the prospect of making two types of vehicles: those that met the strict emissions standards recently set for the state of California, and those for everyone else. Under the Obama rules, all states now will have the same emissions-reduction goals, presenting automakers with uniform production requirements. While that certainly makes things easier for car manufacturers, it ignores the point that the companies could have simplified things on their own by bringing all of their products into accordance with California's landmark standards. Now they will have no choice.
The criticisms offered by opponents of Obama's plan are as expected as they are unoriginal. Auto-industry representatives complain the new standards will add about $1,300 to the price of the average vehicle. While that is certainly not ideal for consumers, it is an example of the inescapable reality of addressing global climate change: It requires an investment from everyone. And, to that end, Obama's new rules are not enough.
Despite the unprecedented pollution-reduction requirements laid out in the rules - which will be the equivalent of removing 177 million cars from America's roads - the policy is not a comprehensive approach to curbing greenhouse-gas emissions or reducing fossil-fuel use. While consumers will pay more for their vehicles, the increased fuel efficiency will not cause drivers to reduce their vehicle usage, said Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University's environmental economics program.
What must follow, to complete the circuit, is a look at gas taxes and other tools that discourage consumers from using so many resources that negatively affect climate change. That effort is under way in the form of a House measure currently being drafted, but its passage is an uphill battle - however necessary. For the time being, though, Obama's fuel-efficiency and emissions rules are an excellent start, both practically and symbolically.