Environmentalists are bogged down in pushing confusing taxing and regulatory schemes to fight climate change. But when it comes to gas-powered cars, argues a Seattle lawyer, why not just ban them?
Seattle lawyer Matthew Metz sat in his office Friday morning, clicking through hundreds of online comments indirectly calling him, or his ideas, loony, “moonbatty” and commie-style meddling in the American way.
“I’d say the reaction is about 99.9 percent negative,” he said cheerfully. “But people will get over it.”
So it was all going according to plan.
That day, news had broken in California of what has become Metz’s newfound mission in life. A California legislator had agreed to sponsor a bill there that would phase out the sale of gasoline-fueled cars in the state, starting in the year 2040.
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“CALIFORNIA PLAN TO BAN ALL GAS CARS” read the headline on the right-wing news aggregator the Drudge Report. The policy emerged in part from Metz’s Seattle-based group Coltura (a smash up of “CO2” and “culture”).
The proposal reflects a radical, or maybe quixotic, new strategy in climate-change environmentalism. Enough with the carbon taxes and cap-and-trade plans that nobody understands and that might not move the needle all that much even if adopted, which the plans rarely are.
Instead, when it comes to fossil-fuel-powered cars, just get rid of them.
“This is the first legislative move like this in the United States,” Metz beamed, adding that a similar proposal is likely to happen here in Washington state.
Metz, 51, is a high-end tort lawyer with an office on the 71st floor of Seattle’s Columbia Center. He’s racked up enough contingency fees, including from a recent $12 million judgment in a Canadian embezzlement case, that he decided he could ease out of lawyering and go all-in on a little side project.
Namely: making America gasoline-free by 2040.
“We’re talking about moving hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil-fuel value in a different direction,” he said.
Metz got this religion when he bought his first plug-in electric car, in 2013. It’s a Ford C-Max, a hybrid (so it also runs on gas). But he found the electric function to be so effective, he hardly ever used the gas engine. Later he bought an old all-electric Nissan Leaf, and then, to get out of gas altogether, traded in the hybrid for a Chevy Bolt.
What surprised him was how good the electric cars are. As well as how glacially slow both the infrastructure and driving culture have been to adapt.
“For the first time since cars were invented, you can drive around in a car without polluting the air and pumping CO2 into the atmosphere,” he said. “But even the environmentalists aren’t doing it. Everybody seems to give themselves a free pass when it comes to their cars.”
He jumped on the idea of phasing out combustion-engine cars because countries like England, India and China have been contemplating it. Then this summer, Volvo announced it was going to “end the solely combustion-engine-powered car” by 2019. Some Volvos will be hybrids, while others will be all-electric.
“I realized the technology is already there — it’s already happening,” Metz said. “So why aren’t we embracing it? It seemed like we maybe needed a nudge.”
Think of the transition away from the incandescent light bulb. Partly ordered by the government, that change sparked plenty of outrage — from don’t-tread-on-me types and also from consumers (like me!) who justifiably complained that those spiral fluorescents were terrible.
But the bulbs improved by orders of magnitude, and the prices dropped. Many of the consumer complaints died away. LED lights today use 90 percent less energy, and people, indeed, seemed to “get over it.”
Transitioning the entire auto fleet to electric would have similar trade-offs. Electric cars currently are more expensive and have nowhere near the range of gas-fueled ones. Many states still generate electricity predominantly by burning fossil fuels, mitigating some of the clean-energy benefits. And batteries have their own ecological costs.
All of that’s solvable, if we commit to it, Metz insists. It’s admittedly an even heavier lift right now, when everything is a battle in a culture war.
But think of other issues where the initial gut reaction was: “That’s crazy!” Gays getting married. Corner pot stores. Fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage. All were seen as politically impossible, even ludicrous. Until suddenly they weren’t.
“I embrace that quote that we overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, but we underestimate what we can do in 10,” Metz said.
“In 15 or so years, when the gas stations start closing, I think we’re actually going to be scratching our heads as to why the transformation didn’t happen sooner.”
“Ban cars that run on gas? That’s just crazy, California!” read a follow-up editorial column in The Sacramento Bee. Interestingly, the column concluded that it maybe wasn’t so crazy after all.