WASHINGTON -- U.S. automakers, on a collision course with catastrophe, are involved in behind-the-scenes machinations in Washington that could well sound the death knell for the industry.
Just as they fought nearly every safety feature, including air bags, for decades, now they are pulling out all the stops in fighting proposed congressional mandates for increased gas mileage.
The Big Three (or what remains of them) are whispering in the ears of congressional leaders that a national goal of getting an average of 35 miles per gallon anytime soon is ludicrous. They say Americans wouldn't buy cars designed to get that kind of mileage because they wouldn't like such vehicles.
They say even if they wanted to do it, the technology isn't there. They say proposals to improve gas mileage by that much would drive them out of business.
The fact that other manufacturers produce vehicles that are far more fuel-efficient than cars made by Detroit is kicked aside. The fact that China has already set a fuel-efficiency standard that the Bush administration suggests be discussed in the United States for 10 years from now is overlooked. The auto industry's desperate efforts to stave off new mandates from Congress for better fuel mileage came at the same time the United States was successfully negotiating a global deal to block obligatory measures to try to save the planet.
The just-completed Group of Eight session in Germany of the eight richest, most industrialized nations came up with a convoluted, face-saving measure in which President Bush agreed to no more than "seriously consider" European targets for combating global climate change. Because of Bush's opposition, the G-8 did not agree on a proposal to cut greenhouse (mainly carbon dioxide) emissions by 50 percent by 2050 or mandate any goals at all.
There was no doubt that this would be the outcome, but it is not a good one for the U.S. image abroad. The perception is that the U.S. is not going to take major steps to curtail global warming if it would hurt U.S. businesses and manufacturers.
There is true anger building in Congress over lack of action by the U.S. government on climate change based on a refusal to admit that the science was right. And there is true anger building over the waste of energy that Detroit has contributed to by refusing to build cars that get better mileage, on the grounds it is too costly.
The automakers do have a point, which is that they have done what is required by law to improve mileage, but U.S. energy consumption has continued to soar. Nonetheless, if industry leaders had accepted the challenge of true fuel economy long ago instead of spending so much time winning over pro-business administrations in the White House, we'd be far better off as a society.
The latest excuse from the Big Three is that if the United States really wants better fuel economy, the government should spend the billions it would take to develop the technology. The idea of even more government handouts to a dying industry that won't change to help itself is appalling.
Most of us live with our heads in the sand when it comes to energy and global warming. We can't believe that at the last moment there won't be scientific breakthroughs that will prevent the United States from running out of energy and will save the world from devastating climate change.
Perhaps that will happen, but so far there are no signs of miracles.
There's always a hope that political and industry leaders will be visionaries, willing to make tough choices to do what is right instead of what is in their self-interest. We have seen so little of that kind of thinking and action in Washington (or on the campaign trail) that hope is dimming fast that we ever will.
Bush did not do the right thing in Germany. He said, in effect, "Let's do some more talking about this global-warming thing." Some day, sooner than we may think, it will be too late to talk.
And cars that get poor gas mileage will be on the road for years to come.
With $5-a-gallon gas almost certainly in our future, and more Americans either too poor to buy expensive new cars or eager to buy foreign-made cars that get 35 or 40 or 50 mpg, it's not hard to see what will happen.
There won't be U.S. carmakers. Cars, like shoes and clothing, will be made elsewhere. But by then there could be all kinds of driving restrictions because the government will tell us that a warmer climate means we must give up more of our civil liberties.
It's called cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.
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