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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Clean-air victory offers climate change lesson

Before the region marketed its environment – “Near Nature, Near Perfect” – it had to clean it up. The history of that improvement carries lessons for those who support and oppose action on climate change.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed Spokane County’s air to be among the dirtiest in the nation. In 1976, Spokane registered more than 400 violations of federal emissions for carbon monoxide. Nine years later, the county became one of five in the state – and the only one in Eastern Washington – to require emissions testing for most vehicles every other year.

It worked.

The county has not had a carbon monoxide violation in the past 20 years, and the feds have removed the dirty-air designation. As a result, vehicle testing may be discontinued at the end of 2019.

It helped that the state adopted a clean-car law, which required autos sold in the state to meet higher emissions standards than was required by the feds. Meanwhile, cleaner oxygenated fuels were introduced, agricultural field burning was banned and stricter wood-stove regulations were adopted.

None of that occurred without resistance or costs. Emissions testing is $15. Clean cars cost more to produce. Farmers had to switch to more expensive methods. The regulations were irritating to many people, but ultimately they were worth it. Clean air is now a selling point.

Change is always met with fear, especially for industries that are directly affected. The auto industry opposed states’ clean-car laws, just as it opposed the adoption of smog-control devices. But the doom-and-gloom predictions for the industry and the economy didn’t come to fruition.

Who wants to return to the eye-burning and lung-inflaming days of the 1960s? There would be no political support to repeal those laws. Mandates for seat belts and air bags have nothing to do with clean air, but they provide two more examples of laws that were battled mightily but now seem like common sense.

The new challenge is carbon dioxide emissions, which are implicated in the warming of the planet, and prospects of government action are once again triggering dire predictions for the economy.

But as history instructs, if government phases in restrictions and gives industry time to adapt, those worst-case scenarios will never come to pass.

Immediate bans on coal and fossil fuels? No. We still need ways to keep the lights on across the country. Pricing carbon to encourage better individual choices and to aid alternative energy markets? Yes.

Spokane County residents can breathe easier thanks to a combination of federal, state and local regulations that were phased in. Climate change is a much bigger challenge, because the worst consequences won’t be visible for many decades to come, which makes it more difficult to persuade people that change is necessary.

But a predictable regulatory landscape would be more productive than the current uncertainty.

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