Smogtown, an L.A. story.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 22 2008 8:37 AM

Cutting Through the Smog

What L.A.'s story can teach the rest of us.

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The reasons smog exists are arguably the very reasons it has proved so difficult to conquer—a dilemma common to many entrenched social problems. Is it realistic to ask suburbanites who live in developments located miles from centers of employment, and without practical means of mass transit, to stop driving their cars? Does it make sense to expect that politicians, answering to constituents who demand jobs and a solid economy, will tighten the reins on activity at the diesel-spewing ports?

Still, necessity is the mother of legislation, and L.A.'s response, for both good and ill, is more broadly relevant. The city's long reign as the country's top air polluter ultimately forced California to become a bellwether in confronting the issue. As early as 1959, the California Department of Public Health developed the first statewide air-quality standards. In 1967, with the passage of the Federal Air Quality Act, the state lobbied for and received a waiver that allowed it to set and enforce emissions thresholds more rigorous than federal levels. That same year, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan founded the California Air Resources Board, which in its lifetime has instituted a host of significant reforms. In the 1990s, for example, it set new standards, the strictest in the nation, for low-emissions vehicles and cleaner-burning gasoline. During the tenure of progressive Gov. Jerry Brown, the state saw the introduction of the country's first carpool lanes, the first law mandating smog checks for cars, and regulations that required automakers to develop emissions controls.

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The tale of the city's struggle against smog is thus one that inspires belief in the possibility of government to bring about change. Indeed, a number of the initiatives were far-reaching in their effects. Under the Clean Air Act, other states are permitted to adopt California's more stringent emissions regulations, and several have done so—including those with high-traffic areas, like Massachusetts and New York. And since California makes up more than 10 percent of the total new-vehicle market, auto companies often find it easier to produce technology that meets the state's standards rather than to create two different models. Today, the authors note, the pollution a new car emits has been cut by 90 percent from its 1990 levels. In California, this has meant fewer high-ozone days overall. In 1983, 152 days exceeded the federal ozone level; by 2003, the number had fallen to 68.

Yet for all the progress, there has been plenty of backsliding. Smogtown includes numerous examples of businesses unwilling to forgo profits and politicians all too willing to cave to industry demands. The Stanford Research Institute, a consortium of oil companies masquerading as a think tank, tried to discredit Haagen-Smit and his findings. The automakers stalled on developing emissions control equipment, claiming consumer prices would be too high. The state responded by approving independently pioneered technology, and—voilà!—the automakers produced their own. Arguably most controversial of all, the 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicles Mandate remains thwarted. The law required automakers to make 10 percent of their total fleet "zero emissions vehicles," such as battery-powered electric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars, by 2003. But it has been watered-down almost from its inception, owing to heavy opposition from automakers (including a lawsuit filed by General Motors). These and other similar moments together serve as a disturbing reminder that even minor capitulations can have sweeping consequences. Smog, the authors write, remains a matter of "wheezy urgency."

Now, with Detroit's Big Three on the verge of collapse, the authors' bottom line seems prescient, but perhaps not quite in the way they expected: Jacobs and Kelly reserve their harshest criticism not for the automakers whose "core mission is to profit from product sales," nor even for the politicians who too often yield to them, but for the inhabitants of Los Angeles, whom they call upon to embrace, belatedly, a sense of accountability, by altering their "cherished suburban lifestyle." In the past, each time the citizenry has been asked to sacrifice—by not burning trash, say, or by paying nominal taxes to fund public transit—there has been an outcry.

Times are obviously changing. The Bush administration is currently suggesting it will borrow from the $700 billion financial rescue fund to keep the auto companies afloat, a move that would force taxpayers to foot the bill for the bailout of an industry in dire need of restructuring. But another response may yet be in order. If the authors are right that as smog persists and global warming looms, Los Angelenos must stop relying on the government to clean up their mess and learn the consequences of their myopically auto-dependent ways, it might also be the moment for all Americans—not just the residents of Los Angeles—to welcome one idea it seems nobody dares mention: higher gasoline taxes. As an editorial in the Washington Post recently pointed out, paying more at the pump would likely produce a host of positive and necessary changes from stimulating the market for fuel-efficient cars to checking urban sprawl to diminishing the clout of petro-states. Not least, we might all cough less.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.