Webster's dictionary defines "inanity" as a combination of vapidity and pointlessness, as something lacking in substance. Add an "s" into the mix, and the dictionary defines "insanity" as either a deranged state of mind, unsoundness of mind, a lack of mental capacity or extreme folly or unreasonableness.
For the past day, I've been trying to work out how to interpret the Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to grant California a waiver to national auto emissions standards so as to allow the state to impose stricter emissions standards on vehicles sold in the state. And, on balance, I'm leaning toward the "insanity" explanation.
For the past four decades, California has applied for, and routinely received, waivers that have given it the green light to pioneer better environmental protections than exist at a federal level. The state has asked for 40 such waivers over the years and has gotten all 40 of them. And then, once given cover by California, other states have followed suit with better environmental regulations of their own. It's been a win-win for all parties: the national government passes laws affordable and palatable to all 50 states, and then California goes one or two steps better, and in the process crafts coalitions made up of the more environmentally conscious, oftentimes more affluent, states. The relationship is an unwritten compact, allowing California to be a sort of environmental bellwether for the rest of the nation.
In recent years, California has pioneered legislation forcing oil companies to produce cleaner fuel than exists in the rest of the country. Its legislators then passed a landmark bill that commits California to long-term changes that will ultimately lead to 80% CO2e reductions, from 1990 levels, by 2050; and that gives regulatory agencies broad powers to begin to enforce these reductions. The final part of the equation is a 2004 law that mandated the auto industry to bring online by 2009 new car designs that would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and raise fuel efficiency levels to an average of 36 miles per gallon by 2016. Taken as a whole, these policies mean that California is now at the cutting edge internationally in anti-global warming strategies. It is up there with the most assertive countries in Europe, and is miles ahead of the US government.
For close to three years now, an increasing number of states have joined California in pushing for these new standards. And for those same three years, the federal government has stalled, hemming and hawing over whether to grant the waiver. By late 2007, 16 states, containing almost half the total US population, were waiting for the EPA to approve the waiver. Angered by the delay, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made it clear he was going to sue the EPA to force them to come to a decision.
So what happened? In mid-December, Congress finally got around to raising national fuel efficiency standards for the first time in over 30 years - calling for average fuel efficiency, spread across the passenger vehicle fleet as a whole, to reach 35 miles per gallon by 2020. A few days later, the Bush administration, which only recently even acknowledged the realities of global warming, denied California's waiver request. Most likely, according to a number of analysts, this was as a "reward" to the auto industry for not putting up more sustained opposition to the fairly weak new national standards.
Is this simply vapid and pointless - in other words inane - or is there a level of extreme folly and unreasonableness rising to the level of insanity?
Well, let's look at this: an administration that, in theory, is philosophically committed to "states' rights", to rolling back big government, has put a kibosh on one of the most important state laws to emerge in decades. A president who has belatedly recognised America's "addiction" to oil has gone out on a limb opposing a law that actually does something to reduce that addiction. An unpopular Republican government that's just been put through the wringer in Bali for its at best lukewarm commitment to tackling global warming turns around a week later and oh-so-publicly spits in the face of a popular Republican governor from California who had the gall to call for stricter environmental standards.
This has got to be a PR-miscalculation on a par with ... oh, I don't know, let's say declaring Iran on the verge of starting a nuclear world war a month after the intelligence agencies told the president they had concluded Iran no longer had an active nuclear weapons programme.
California has already declared that it will sue the federal government. The other states lined up behind California have indicated a similar desire to head to the courts.
In a way, the EPA's bizarre decision has done the impossible. During a period of intense partisan bickering in California - over a looming and enormous budget deficit, over prison spending and a host of other issues - the EPA has brought California's Republican and Democratic leaders together in amazed and furious opposition to the Feds.
Inane or insane? I'll leave it up to you to decide.
Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Demos. He writes regularly for the Nation, Mother Jones, and several other publications. His book on the issue of the disenfranchisement of felons is titled Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House.
© 2007 The Guardian