Meet the man who may determine the fate of climate policy in the next two years: Rep. John Dingell.

The formidable Democrat from Michigan, now 80, has served 51 years in the House of Representatives — the second-longest of any congressional career in history. During that time, he played a key role in pushing through many of America’s cornerstone environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the original Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) system that has defined America’s automotive energy-efficiency strategy since 1975. “I’ve been a busy little boy,” Dingell says in describing his own environmental record.

But despite these achievements, environmentalists are not uniformly overjoyed that Dingell will soon take the helm of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees most energy-related bills. As they see it, his record has a sizeable hitch: as representative for a district that includes suburban Detroit, Dingell is a dogged defender of the U.S. auto industry. Though he helped author CAFE rules 30 years ago, in the midst of the Arab oil embargo, he has since staunchly opposed ratcheting up fuel-economy standards, on the grounds that it could imperil the American economy.

That’s why some environmentalists see Dingell as the single biggest roadblock on the path toward meaningful climate policy in the 110th Congress, while others are busy crafting Detroit-friendly climate plans that they hope will win Dingell’s support.

Dingell spoke with Grist from his office in Washington, D.C., giving insight into what the climate-policy landscape may — or may not — look like over the next two years.


What major environmental breakthroughs do you see on the horizon for the 110th Congress, in an ideal world?

Oh, you’re a smart girl, because that’s a nasty question. You know, this is going to be very difficult. There’s still harvesting of the ill will that’s been sown over the last dozen years. We’ve got a Republican president, and we’ve got to bring the Republicans in and establish some cooperation, of which there’s been relatively little of late. I’d rather tell you on what we’re going to work than tell you what we’re going to do, because I don’t like to look foolish by having promised something that I don’t deliver.

What are your environmental priorities for the 110th Congress, particularly for the Energy and Commerce Committee?

We’ll have to see first what is ready, what is ripe, and what is doable. We’ve got a bunch of things. Proper funding for brownfields and for Superfund, administration of the Clean Air Act and other acts under the jurisdiction of the EPA. We’re going to take a look at global warming and see what has to be done there.

Barbara Boxer [incoming chair of the Senate Environment Committee] has said repeatedly that she sees global warming as the single biggest environmental threat on the horizon. Do you agree with her?

I don’t agree and I don’t disagree. I don’t know what the biggest one is. Certainly if there is environmental warming, it is a very major environmental problem and it should be addressed.

So you don’t believe the scientific consensus on global warming is established at this point?

This country, this world, the [human] race of which you and I are a part, is great at having consensuses that are in great error. And so I want to get the scientific facts, and find out what the situation is, and find out what is the cure, and find out what is the cure that is acceptable to the country that I represent and serve.

You mentioned in our last conversation that you want to call for climate hearings. Is your hope to get a clearer idea of the science and the potential solutions?

Yes, yes. We need to hold hearings to gather the facts on questions of both science and policy solutions. Let’s talk global warming. If you remember, Kyoto was, in an anticipatory fashion, rejected 95 to nothing in the U.S. Senate, on the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which said that the Senate would not ratify any agreement which imposed burdens on the United States which were disproportionate to the burdens that everybody else was going to get. And so Kyoto never got ratified by the Senate. That’s a serious matter. So if we’re going to deal with this problem, you have to recognize we’re not the only people that burn coal, emit carbon dioxide or pollutants of any kind. New Zealand, which has relatively little industry, is an enormous emitter of CO2. They’ve got a bunch of sheep over there that do it.

The methane.

The methane. So, we are not alone in this problem, and we should not be alone in the solution.

Would it not be wise to introduce domestic solutions in the meantime, even if we don’t yet have an international agreement?

Is that going to solve the problem? China has an exemption from the Kyoto agreement because it’s classified as a developing country. The Indians are, too. In a meeting about the Kyoto agreement, I asked the Chinese, “How long are you going to be a developing country, before we can expect you to participate in cleaning up?” They looked me in the eye and said, “Dingell, we’re always going to be developing. We aren’t ever going to be a stable, staid, complete society. So we’re never going to be covered by it. We’re just going to go ahead and burn all the damn coal, emit all the carbon dioxide that we want to emit.” And they will very shortly be the biggest emitter in the world. Far bigger than we.

Now you ask, if we were to terminate all of the burning of coal and all of the production of CO2 in this country, and China and India and Europe and everybody else in the developing world keeps going, I don’t think you’re going to be looking for much in the way of a resolution. This is an international problem.

So you believe the emphasis needs to be on how we’re going to rally the world to address climate change, not how we’re going to rally ourselves to address it?

Well, we have to do all of the above. We’ve got to begin to find out what we can do, and how we can do it without destituting the American society. But by the same token, we’re going to have to help others to do the same thing and persuade them to be participants in that undertaking. In terms of diplomacy, that’s probably one of the single biggest problems this country’s got.

But you’ve got a lot of [Americans] saying, “We’re going to solve the problem. We’re going to make these cars.” Well, we could all be riding around in kiddie cars and we wouldn’t solve the problem. And we’d have an awful lot of angry Americans. You’re not going to solve [the climate] problem yourself any more than you’re going to solve Iraq by yourself.

What’s a kiddie car?

Don’t you know what a kiddie car is?

No.

It’s one of those three-wheel things that kids get when they start out, they sit on and it’s got a little handlebar, and they sort of pad around on this little three-wheeled tricycle.

Got it. What type of climate legislation should we be talking about domestically?

If I knew that, I’d be glad to tell you, but I don’t. We’re going to try to find out what we need to do and proceed in a responsible fashion.

You were one of the authors of legislation establishing CAFE standards in the 1970s, but you’ve since opposed raising the standards. Do you still oppose raising them?

The law says that the government has the authority to fix fuel efficiency at the maximum technologically feasible [miles-per-gallon] number. It has raised this a little bit, but it’s not been able to make any radical changes from the numbers we wrote back in the 1970s. I will probably be asking if there is greater efficiency that can be achieved, and if so, how. We’ll also ask how this can all be done without destituting American industry.

What do you mean by “destituting American industry”?

One job in 10 in this country is in the auto industry. Most people don’t know that. The auto industry is the biggest user of carpets produced in the Carolinas. The auto industry is the biggest user of glass produced in Pittsburgh. The autos are the biggest consumer of steel. The autos are tremendous users of plastic. And they’ve got, I think, about four computers in an automobile. Now, you can be quite calm about destituting Detroit, but do you want to shut down Silicon Valley and North Carolina and the Gulf Coast and Pittsburgh and other places that are heavily dependent on this? Plus the transportation industry that moves these cars around?

What would CAFE 2.0 — the next generation of CAFE standards — look like?

If I knew that, I would think I was a very smart fellow.

In the next two years will you try to work on it? Perhaps it could be part of your legacy — that you not only helped write CAFE, but also its sequel.

Well, we’ll be hacking away at it. But I’m not getting ready to hang things up yet. I’m just getting into my middle years.

Look, I’m going to be doing my best to get us there. Because it’s in my interest just as it’s in everybody else’s to solve the problem. I’m an American. And I gotta help my country. But in a like fashion, I’ve gotta help my own constituents and people.

Some argue that protecting Detroit from increased CAFE standards has actually made the U.S. less competitive. Today the most successful auto companies are the ones that are producing the most efficient cars.

Now let me just tell you this. First of all, you know which auto company produces the most lines of fuel-efficient cars? General Motors. They produce more fuel-efficient models than does any foreign manufacturer. More than Toyota, more than Nissan or any of the brands.

But the concern is that the total aggregate of their fuel efficiency …

Here’s your problem. And you’re a bright young woman. You don’t have to have this explained to you. Look: Why do Americans buy SUVs? They buy them because they’re big, because they’re comfortable, because they feel safe, because they can haul six kids and a big load of groceries. Because the soccer mom can take the soccer team to a soccer game. Because they’ve got four-wheel drive if they run into a huge damn snowstorm. That’s why they buy it.

Right. And they could buy those same big cars with hybrid engines and more efficient designs.

Well, understand one thing. Everybody says, “Oh, hybrids are going to solve this problem.” The simple fact of the matter is, if you drive a hybrid around the city, it’s going to work. If you drive a hybrid on interstates, it isn’t going to save you any fuel. Because what a hybrid does is, it retrieves the energy from the motion.

From braking.

From braking, yes. And this generated electricity from braking moves into batteries. But you’ve got a thousand pounds of bloody batteries in the car. And we haven’t really resolved the battery technology. And there’s a huge cost differential [between hybrids and traditional vehicles]. The cost differential can go around $3,000 or $4,000 a car. That ain’t peanuts.

So you don’t believe these hybrid technologies are necessary?

No, no, no. There is no one simple solution to our energy problems. Whether we’re talking about transportation or generation of electricity, it’s many things — it’s alternative fuels, it’s conservation, it’s nuclear, it’s a whole wide array of things. And in automobiles, we’re going to have to explore things like hybrids. We’re going to have to go to diesels. I’m trying to push us going to diesels because we get a 20- to 25-percent fuel benefit.

What about biofuels?

If you used every nickel’s worth of corn that this country produces, you could only have 70 percent of the fuel it takes to run the American transportation fleet. Do you want to eat corn bread and corn syrup and have your beef fed with corn, or do you want to ride around in a car?

And let me give you another thing. Only recently have we gotten production of [ethanol] to the point where it isn’t just about a one-to-one input of energy for output of energy. The president has wisely suggested we go to cellulosic fuels. That’s a great idea, and I favor it. But right now that’s not ready. And so we’ve got to push a lot of technologies.

Do you think there’s a way of developing a Detroit-friendly climate policy? For instance, some environmentalists have been outlining a proposal for a cap-and-trade program that offers special allowances to automakers that would help fund the industry’s technological advances.

I’m willing to consider it. I don’t know. You know, before you start making a bunch of wise-ass comments, you better know what you’re talking about. And right now I don’t. There’s all types of people running around with solutions, but when you put these solutions to the test, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I would be willing to bet you that half don’t.

What kind of car do you drive?

I drive a good, American-made car.

Your wife is head of the General Motors Foundation. Does she influence your thinking about …

She doesn’t lobby. And she won’t even talk to me about these matters.

In closing, what do you do in your own life to reduce your environmental impact?

Well, I heat my house not above 70 degrees. I take a Navy shower. I carpool with my wife. I shut off the water when I’m cleaning my teeth. I recycle every damn thing I can recycle.