Baby You Can Drive My (electric, low emission) Car

Driving when gasoline was 30 cents/gallon. Photo: Sherry Bryan in Corvette Forum

I am being happy about climate change these days. Last week was, officially, “Climate Week” in New York City, and the U.N General Assembly assembled to hear Xi Jinping announce that China would stop building coal-fired power plants around the world. Joe Biden committed to doubling U.S. assistance to help less developed countries deal with climate change. And Boris Johnson, clearly the World Climate Leader wannabe as Britain prepares to host the critical COP26 summit in Glasgow, scolded everyone for not doing enough (correctly) and said it’s “time to grow up.” A little patronizing, perhaps — he also mentioned Sesame Street — but remember this is a conservative politician. Imagine Mitch McConnell being such a responsible dad!

Climate happiness was further enhanced quite literally when late-night TV hosts highlighted climate change on September 23. (I’ll do a blog on climate humor soon. Really.) In my part of the world, the University of Pennsylvania had a week chock-full of climate programming, including a session on urban gardening (subject of an earlier blog) and a talk by my Penn State colleague and hero Michael Mann, who spoke on “Urgency and Agency in the Battle to Avert a Climate Crisis.” To top it off, September 22 was National Ice Cream Cone Day! May not seem too relevant, but remember that happiness is “two kinds of ice cream,” and it’s a great way to cool down global warming angst, Charlie Brown.

We as individuals can’t sustain climate activism, the subject of this bi-weekly blog, without stories of success, good news, and a glass-half-full optimism. The urgency of which Mann speaks can be debilitatingly real, but right now I refuse to delineate last week’s bad news or Joe’s and Boris’s inconsistency on climate policy. Let’s focus on agency here, because personal action is empowering, and research shows (and I’ll bet you know from personal experience) that taking control makes you feel strong and, yes, happy.

Let us turn to something which embodies the endorphins of agency: driving. We love to do it, even when we know we should be taking the train or walking, partly because it gives us control — of when we leave, where we go, and how fast we get there, cops and Floridians notwithstanding. Since last week was also National Drive Electric Week (I’m thinking we need more weeks in the year), in this post I’ll share what I did and what you can do to make those wheeled darlings climate friendly.

Driving when gasoline is so much more costly. Clockwise from top left: Road collapse from permafrost melting, flooded roads in Tennessee this summer, buckled road from extreme heat.

First, the auto mega-industry is a good place to maximize your impact. Transportation is the biggest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and most of that is from personal driving. Sure it feels great to change what and how you drive personally, but we need to meet the urgency mandate through political action, where big changes can happen quickly and on a large scale. We must make clean, efficient cars and their supporting infrastructure widely available and irresistible now. President Biden spoke to this urgency when he issued an executive order to make 50% of vehicles electric by 2030. How do we do that when current sales are less than 4% of the total in the U.S.?

An electric car still gets its juice from somewhere, and what if it’s a coal-fired plant? The Union of Concerned Scientists says that’s still better for climate change, but how much better depends on where you live and the power supply there, as shown above and described in this article.

Much rides on passage of the dual infrastructure bills mired in debate and horse-trading on Capitol Hill right now, and your legislator would love your input. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $7.5 billion for charging station expansion, with a major portion set aside for low-income and rural areas, where current providers are reluctant to install chargers. It’s a Catch-22 crying out for government encouragement: Charging stations only pay for themselves with enough users; people won’t buy electric vehicles if there are no charging stations. Build it and they will charge.

So, my first action was to call my congressional rep Mary Gay Scanlon (D PA-5) and ask her to vote against the IIJA. What? The bill was scheduled for a vote Monday September 27, and progressives’ goal was to kill it. Yep. This is because this bipartisan bill needs to pass in tandem with the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, which is where the bulk of climate legislation exists, including consumer incentives to buy electric cars, domestic manufacture financing, and research dollars. Build Back Better is a so-called reconciliation bill and needs every single Democrat’s support to pass, but conservative Democrats have misgivings which are stalling progress. If the bipartisan IIJA passes first, all pressure to make Build Back Better happen is lost. As of this writing, Nancy Pelosi delayed the vote to Thursday, September 30, and it could be delayed further. All this legislative gymnastics creates constantly moving targets, but the unchanging idea on which we can all act is to keep the two bills together to get the climate action (and many other life-changing programs in the bill) we so desperately need.

That Thursday will bring my second action, which is to join a Sierra Club phone bank, calling sympathetic souls in West Virginia and asking them to contact Senator Joe Manchin. His name has almost become a portmanteau with Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-AZ), as those two conservative Democrat senators resist this bill and much else progressive. The idea is to let the lawmakers know that their own constituents want them to support a bold Build Back Better bill, with hopes that the shared voices will drown out the gurgling cries emanating from the depths of the fossil fuel industry (Manchin was the #1 recipient of oil and gas campaign contributions among federal legislators, and the #2 beneficiary from the coal mining industry, in the current election cycle).

Auto Action Three: I submitted a comment on emissions regulations for old-fashioned internal combustion engine cars. This is a new way to be a climate campaigner that I’m learning about. When federal agencies enact rules or rule changes as they administer laws passed by Congress, they must publish them and entertain public comments for a period, say sixty days. All this is published in the venerable Federal Register. I became aware that the EPA, responding to President Biden’s executive order to re-impose strict fuel efficiency standards rolled back by the Trump administration, was accepting comments until September 27. It was quick and easy to submit my polite encouragement. Now it’s true that keeping track of all the nuances of rulemaking can be daunting, but organizations working on climate change will do it for you. In this case, I followed a League of Conservation Voters email, which provided a template and background information. Anyone can do this through websites like the LCV’s action page, or by signing up for email and text alerts regarding public comment invitations. You may think this is a formality that nobody actually reads, but comments can have a real impact. For example, outrage over USDA rules allowing genetically engineered crops to be labelled “organic” absolutely buried the agency in comments (230,000 to be exact), so much so that they changed the rule. There are no GMOs in your certified organic Oaty-O’s.

To round out my feel-good week, my partner Lisè and I attended a Drive Electric event near Philadelphia, where Teslas, Chevy Bolts, Ford Mach-E Mustangs, and all manner of the forty-plus electric vehicles available in the U.S. today were proudly on display.

Drive Electric Week event in Ambler, Pennsylvania, September 25. Photo: Mark Boudreau.

I was hoping to drive one and feel the exceptional performance that electric can deliver (check out the Penn presentation on electric racing). For example, the Tesla Model S does 0–60 in 1.99 sec and has a top speed of 200 mph. But alas, I got no car and it broke my heart, as Lennon and McCartney said. We didn’t even get a ride in a Toyota plug-in hybrid. Never mind. We enjoyed looking under the hoods, listening to live music, talking to the enthusiastic owners, and sitting behind the almost-comically barren Tesla dashboard. The excitement of the burgeoning variety, availability, and affordability of electric cars was as abundant as the sun that Saturday afternoon.

Lisè shares my climate happiness in a Tesla.

We left with smiles in my oh-so-passé 2010 Prius, which can go about 17 feet on the battery alone, thinking about next cars and singing the Beatles. Surely this autumnal climate contentment I’m feeling will pass like a red Nissan Leaf, but for now I’ll focus on all the agency I applied and the joy of doing my part to drive climate action forward. Electrically, of course.

Beep beep’m beep beep, yeah.

I’m a teaching professor of biology and researcher in agroecology at Penn State Brandywine, intent on developing my inner climate activist.