[Environmental Outlook]
August 20, 1998

Friends don't let friends drive SUVs

Northwest Environment Watch

The scene is familiar to anyone who reads magazines or watches TV. A sparkling sport utility vehicle tears across a remote landscape under a beautiful sky. Sometimes the four-by-four is speeding across a redrock desert at dawn, sometimes it's barreling through a mountain stream.

Every ad markets the beauty of the outdoors to appeal to prospective buyers' fantasies of escaping traffic and urban hassles. In reality, these gas-guzzling machines are hastening the undoing of the outdoors and rapidly polluting those beautiful skies.

A sport utility vehicle consumes about one third more gasoline per mile, and puts out one third more carbon dioxide, than the typical car. Carbon dioxide, of course, is harmless to breathe, but it is the main greenhouse gas that is destabilizing our climate and threatening to disrupt ecosystems, economies and human health around the world.

Last year, diplomats from around the world met in Kyoto, Japan, and hammered out an agreement to reduce the world's emissions of greenhouse gases. Yet here in America - the heartland of greenhouse gas emissions - sport utilities and other light trucks are growing in popularity and show no signs of letting up. Light trucks (SUVs, pick-ups and minivans) make up almost half of all new passenger vehicle sales in the U.S., and they are the nation's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sport utes cause other problems beyond air pollution, including the much greater danger of fatal accidents that large, high-riding vehicles impose upon other drivers. Let's not even mention what happens to a mountain stream when you drive two tons of metal and rubber through it. According to Chrysler polls, 97 percent of Jeep Grand Cherokee owners never leave paved roads.

That's the problem. Most of the time, SUVs are the wrong tools for the job. A truck may be indispensable for workers who carry heavy loads or drive off-road. That's why, when Congress set fuel efficiency standards for cars in 1977, they let light trucks off the hook.

Back then, light trucks were rarities on the highway, and most were used to do things that cars just couldn't do. Today, SUVs are simply overgrown cars - Silly Urban Vanities - used mostly by solo commuters and soccer moms.

Let's face it: we don't need to wrap ourselves in vehicles designed for elephant hunting to grab a coffee at the 7-11!

We Americans do need to reduce our impact on the atmosphere. SUVs are a logical place to start. Let's admit that SUVs are cars, not trucks, and apply cars' fuel efficiency standards and gas-guzzler taxes to them. Let's lower income taxes and raise gas taxes to reward people for making a living, not wasting gasoline. These actions would also benefit our economy by reducing our energy costs and dependence on imported oil.

But it's a bit too easy to pin the blame on SUVs. Until we can reverse the underlying trend of more vehicles being driven more miles, even the greenest cars will cause more traffic jams and accidents and eat up more money and countryside. Individuals and governments need to support alternatives to driving alone.

For most Americans, cars are essential tools of modern life, yet they are often the wrong tools for the job. Nearly half the trips we take are three miles or less, for example. More than a quarter are under one mile. Let's use our cars when we need to, but use something else when we can. Like they say on those police shows, "Step away from the car, and no one gets hurt!"

"Green" SUV ads - like the Chevy ads that quote Thoreau or the catalogs selling Eddie Bauer Ford Explorers that ask customers for a dollar to plant a tree - bug me. But then, why shouldn't gas guzzlers be named after places like Tacoma or the Yukon that will be hard-hit by global warming? Maybe it's just a subtle form of truth in advertising. Why shouldn't automakers name their products - like the Cirrus or the Aurora - after atmospheric phenomena? With all the carbon dioxide they emit, they are atmospheric phenomena.

One ad stands out. The gleaming four-by-four splashes through the rocky surf; dark forests rise in the background. The fate of our warming world was probably the farthest thing from the copywriter's mind, but sometimes you find wisdom where you least expect it. "Careful," the Infiniti ad reads, "you may run out of planet."

John C. Ryan is research director of Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle and author of "Over Our Heads: A Local Look at Global Climate."

Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.