Volkswagen, Donald Trump, and the Pope

This may sound like one of those bad jokes about three unlikely bar patrons, but German automaker Volkswagen, presidential aspirant Donald Trump, and Pope Francis actually have something in common. All three shared headlines in the past few days about the environment and climate change.

Let’s start with The Donald. He said he doesn’t believe in climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is real and largely human-caused. If it takes more than that to convince him of inconvenient truths, then it’s fair to assume he doesn’t believe much of what he reads in the Bible, which he has frequently said is his favorite book, but which has little beyond blind faith to support its stories of creation and miracles.

Another man who likes the Bible, Pope Francis, took every opportunity in Cuba, Washington DC, and New York to talk about the world’s need to tackle climate change, something he clearly believes exists and can be solved by humans, given that we caused it in the first place. His various remarks on the subject seemed focused around concerns for the poor and those less able to deal with droughts, super-storms, and health impacts.

The Pope is right. As the former Secretary of the California EPA, I can attest to the fact that health impacts from air pollution of all kinds are very real and very deadly. In my book Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction, I cite numerous studies that I relied upon as a regulator in the effort to protect public health. One study from southern California found that children raised near busy freeways lose as much as one percent of their lung function every year. Another one, conducted in New York city, found toxins from vehicle exhaust in the bloodstream of pregnant women and therefore in the bodies of their unborn children. These studies and other substantial evidence, accumulated for decades about the impacts of pollution on our health, make the third newsmaker of last week even more shocking.

VW admitted that it had installed software on diesel vehicles that would fool emissions tests into thinking tailpipe pollution was within EPA health-protective standards, but which, under normal driving conditions, were as much as forty times higher.[1] Such emissions contribute to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change, but these despicable deceptions, much like climate change itself, claim lives and endanger public health today. One study calculates that the VW deception caused at least as many deaths in the U.S. (over one hundred) as the recent GM ignition defect.[2] How many asthma sufferers were made incrementally sicker, we’ll probably never know.

What makes VW’s actions even more surprising is the notion that the company thought it could fool regulators forever. When I was at the California EPA, I dealt with a case where manufacturers of diesel truck engines installed similar “defeat devices” to fool emissions testing protocols (a summary of those incidents, and the resulting lawsuits and costly settlements, can also be found in my book). These things never stay hidden for long.

But perhaps the strangest thing about this troika of headline-makers, is the fact that car companies, business leaders, and religious figures should all be on the same page about aggressively addressing greenhouse gas and other pollution, although perhaps for different reasons. The Pope was very clear about the spiritual obligation to be good stewards of the earth and to care for all life forms that share our planet. Trump should know that reducing pollution saves money on electricity (with energy efficient buildings like the ones he owns) and creates new domestic job and business opportunities (you can’t outsource the job of installing a solar panel on an American home to a worker in India or China).

And VW should know that consumers want to protect their kids from asthma and lung disease, but also like to save money with fuel-efficient cars. Just ask the American automakers who continued to make gas guzzling SUVs and lobby Congress to avoid more stringent emissions and fuel economy standards for decades, only to see foreign competitors grab so much market share with clean, efficient vehicles that the domestic brands were forced to the brink of bankruptcy and needed costly government bailouts to survive.

VW should also know by now that regulators won’t back down. My former colleagues in California have recently renewed the fight against polluting fuels by supporting the Low Carbon Fuels Standard, which provides a clever market-based approach to reducing the amount of polluting fuels we burn.[3] The results of these kinds of measures speak for themselves - - a new study shows that the health impacts to our kids can be reversed if we stay the course of constantly improving our air quality.[4]

Thanks to the Pope, climate change and environmental protection is being taken seriously in places and in conversations where these topics have been long-ignored and we can only hope that this puts more pressure on leaders from business, politics, and religion to speak truth and provide solutions commensurate with the challenge. And by singing from the same hymnal, the future can be brighter economically, environmentally, and spiritually.






[4] Children’s Lung Health Improves as Air Pollution Is Reduced, Study Says NY Times March 4, 2015