Statement of Rabbi David Saperstein on the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency Standards Rider on the 1999 Transportation Appropriations Bill
FEBRUARY 10, 1999
I am Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.1 I am pleased to appear before you today representing not only the broad spectrum of the Jewish community - through the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life - but also the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, comprised of 34 Protestant and Christian Orthodox communions. The churches and synagogues I represent today include approximately 55 million people across the nation.
A broad spectrum of the religious community of the United States is deeply concerned about protecting creation, both human and non-human alike. For that reason, the National Council of Churches recently distributed materials on global climate change to 70,000 congregations. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life has engaged an extensive network of national and local Jewish organizations in action to clean up our nation's air. The U.S. Catholic Conference has a long history of engagement on issues of energy conservation. And the evangelical Christian Environmental Council recently adopted a resolution calling on our society to protect God's creation from the dangers of global climate change. Each of these communities has engaged these issues out of deep religious conviction, and concern about our fundamental responsibilities to each other, to our Creator, and to creation.
We are by no means experts on automobile emissions technology. But today's deliberation is far from merely technical. Indeed, this hearing today is about that vital biblical imperative: choose life. Members of the congregations I have the honor to represent tell us that concern for the environment is one of the most important issues the world faces today.
Towards that end, I wish to focus today on a rider that has been attached to the Transportation Appropriations bill for the last several years. This rider prevents the preparation, proposal, or promulgation of higher standards of Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE). It thus prevents the significant potential benefit that might appear should these standards be scrutinized and raised. According to the 1999 EPA document "Inside the Greenhouse," CAFE standards have not been revised since the Carter Administration. We believe it is time to consider revising them now.
Testifying before the rulers of Jerusalem over two and a half millennia ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote, "Their land is full of silver and gold, there is no limit to their treasure; their land is full of horses, there is no limit to their chariots. Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have wrought." (Isaiah 2:7-8)
To be sure, Isaiah wasn't concerned with fuel economy. In his day, chariots ran without burning any hydrocarbons. But he was pointing out a lesson that is resoundingly relevant today. Chariots (ancient or modern), technology as a whole, power, even riches, are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. But when we become obsessed with ever bigger and more powerful chariots and forget their impact on the world around us, then we succumb to the sins about which Isaiah warned. Then our technology, our chariots, the pleasure of convenience they bring, become our ends, our highest goals. Then they become idols -- with dire consequences for our souls and for our society.
We in the religious community are not opposed to technology. Rather, we want to ensure that technology is used to empower people, not to enslave them. The quest for ever faster, sleeker, bigger cars needs to be put into context. Bigger is not always better. Rather, technology, including cars, should be our servants. We should make decisions about their use in a fashion that reflects the core values of our faiths and of our nation. And it is these core values, we believe, that must inform your debate about Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.
For raising fuel efficiency can save lives, help consumers, strengthen our economy, help to ensure our national security, and protect future generations. These are values I am sure everyone in this room today shares. Let me review the potential impact of raised CAFE standards on these consensus values one by one.
First, always, saving lives. In my tradition, we call this pikuach nefesh, and it is a value that supersedes any but devotion to God. CAFE standards can save lives, for as fuel efficiency goes up, cars (and the so-called sports utility vehicles and light trucks to which these standards should, but do not now, also apply) emit less smog and soot. These pollutants choke the lungs of children and the elderly, causing and exacerbating respiratory ailments, all too often leading to death. The EPA estimates that with our present CAFE standards, 500,000 fewer tons of carcinogenic hydrocarbons are emitted into the air, each year, than would have been emitted had the standards not existed.2 Remove this rider, and we have a chance to further clean up our air and save more lives, especially in crowded urban areas already beset by poverty and discrimination. God calls on us first and foremost to protect the vulnerable. Let us do so.
When it comes to saving lives, raising CAFE standards would not only help prevent global warming, it would reduce air pollution and increase our national health. One health issue about which we are particularly concerned is nitrogen oxides. According to the EPA's National Air Quality and Emissions Trends Report, 1996, automobiles are a significant source of emissions of nitrogen oxides. Continued or frequent exposure to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (one kind of nitrogen oxide) may cause increased incidence of acute respiratory disease in children. Further, ozone and photochemical smog result primarily from chemical reactions involving organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the presence of sunlight. In 1995, 71 million Americans were living in areas where the ozone air quality standard was violated; and, according to EPA, the current standard is not adequate to protect public health. Persons exposed to ozone suffer eye irritation, cough and chest discomfort, headaches, upper respiratory illness, increased asthma attacks, and reduced pulmonary function.
Second, as you will no doubt hear in more detail from others, raising CAFE standards can help consumers and strengthen our economy. According to the Center on Auto Safety, CAFE standards already save the average consumer $3000 over the lifetime of his or her "chariot," and these savings are particularly vital to the poorest in our society. Just as importantly for our economy, more efficient cars mean less reliance on foreign oil. Half of the oil we use fuels our cars, and that is the same amount of oil we import. When the CAFE standards first went into effect in 1976, new vehicle average fuel efficiency was 17.2 miles per gallon (mpg). That figure rose 10 mpg over the next ten years, and has since stabilized at around 28 mpg. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment reports that regulatory pressure could raise average new car fuel efficiency by about 13 percent in 2000 and 22 percent by 2005. We can increase energy efficiency, and our trade balances can improve as a result.
Which brings us to foreign policy. Let me say a word on an issue of particular concern to the Jewish community. For more than twenty years, we have supported strong CAFE standards, and similar energy conservation steps, in part because we realize that dependence on foreign oil can distort our nation's foreign policy objectives. Over the years, as circumstances would have it, oil profits have been used to prop up a number of regimes whose values and interests have been inimical to our own. Certainly dependence on oil has provided Middle East nations with the lever to manipulate the foreign policy of many nations on issues in the Mideast. Reduce our dependence on foreign oil, share our technological innovations to help reduce the dependence of other oil-importing nations as well, and we help ensure the policy autonomy of nations across the globe. The basic human rights with which our Creator has endowed all people, and the peace in the Mideast for which we yearn, may seem a long way from CAFE standards, energy conservation and efficiency, but they are inextricably linked.
Finally, I come before you not only representing people of faith, but as a father of two sons. I want Daniel and Ari to grow up in a world that is not plagued by the dangers that pollution-caused climate change may create: ever-increasing killer heatwaves, rising sea levels, Mitch-plus hurricanes, and spreading tropical diseases. NASA reported that last year was the warmest in modern history, with the past 18 years being among the warmest ever recorded. We have experienced temperature swings in Washington that cannot be healthy for trees, plants, or human beings. Ecclesiastes taught that "For every thing there is a season, and for every time a purpose unto Heaven." Yet we human beings are now altering our own seasons with serious disregard for the consequences of our actions. While evidence on climate effects is complex and still under legitimate debate, let us be clear about one thing. We cannot afford to wait for conclusive evidence on these issues. By the time we are certain, it could be too late.
Let me say a few words about uncertainty when it comes to complex issues such as global warming. There are many threats to human life that are neither certain nor imminent, and climate change falls into this category. For this reason, Jewish thinkers have devised ways of evaluating risks and deciding upon how much prevention (or precaution) to mandate in the face of predictable or unpredictable risks. For instance, the Bible tells us that, "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood-guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it." (Deuteronomy 22:8) Our great teacher, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, teaches us that we must take action to protect others from any object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, including building a fence on an unprotected roof. In the Mishneh Torah, his great commentary on the Bible, he wrote that a person (not just the owner) must remove a possible danger that could cause fatal harm to another, even, in the case of the parapet, when the danger is not imminent or certain. So too with climate change, we must take action to prevent this possible danger.
The lonely Voyager spacecraft confirms that we only have one habitable world at this time. We must take care of our resources now, to ensure that our children will truly inherit a better world - certainly, even if the danger to them is not certain, we have an obligation to prevent it.
We can take a big step forward in reducing these risks from climate change if we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide spewing forth from our modern chariots. We can build for our children a future in which the bounty of God's earth will be sustained and shared by all. Yes, this will cause some short-term challenges and sacrifices, but the Bible reminds us to think beyond soundbites, third-quarter projections, and the next election cycle. It calls on us to plan l¹dor va-dor: from generation to generation.
Jewish and Christian traditions teach us that we have a solemn responsibility to prevent harm to other people, that securing the health and well-being of those alive now and those to come after us is of utmost importance. We are called to set aside convenience and profit to do so. We are even called to sacrifice to protect others.
Raising CAFE standards is incontrovertibly possible for us to do as a nation, and we know it would help to protect millions of people. It is unconscionable not to take action. We cannot become so consumed with short-term interests so as to ignore long-term consequences. Yet even businesses generally, and auto companies, particularly, will benefit in the long term. And forward looking oil companies realize that the time has come to advocate for a more energy efficient economy.
The organizations I represent believe that available evidence shows that higher CAFE standards will have profoundly positive impacts on what we should value most in our society: children, health, freedom, our future. That is why the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the broadest public policy umbrella organization in the Jewish community, will make defeating this rider one of its top four priorities, selected from all domestic and international issues, at its annual convention that will meet in Washington in two weeks. That is why such diverse groups, from rural Evangelicals to urban Jews, from ancient Christian Orthodox churches to modern Protestant ones, have come together to call for the end to this rider which, since 1996, has effectively kept the Department of Transportation from examining these standards.
Cars, and the gold they yield, can still become idols, as Isaiah knew. But the chariot has another meaning to Christians and Jews, for our prophets and mystics envisioned God's heavenly throne as a chariot. And this heavenly, sweet chariot represents the ideals, the values, we should strive for in living a life of faith. So let me close with this teaching from Rabbi Shneor Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitch movement. He wrote, "The hand that does justly becomes a limb in the heavenly chariot." You have an opportunity to do justice today. Help clear pollution from our heavens, protect our children, promote freedom and secure our future. If you do so, surely chariots earthly and heavenly, along with the heavens and earth themselves, will rejoice.
Thank you for this opportunity to share our views.
1. I am grateful to Rabbi Daniel Swartz of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Mark Jacobs of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and Evonne Smitt of my staff, for their assistance in preparing this testimony.
2. Oakridge National Lab Report 6715, "Motor Vehicle Fuel Economy, the Forgotten HC Control Strategy?" by Mark Deluchi, Quanlu Wang, and David L. Greene (June 1992).