It takes energy to shred and recycle metals; plastic components often cannot be recycled and end up as landfill cover; and the engine fluids, refrigerants and other chemicals essential to operating products end up as hazardous wastes ["Does Cash for Clunkers Help the Environment? It's Debatable," Fox News, 2009.08.05].
When conservatives have to resort to arguing that a liberal policy successfully stimulates the economy but causes environmental harm and "does nothing to reduce America's dependence on oil," we liberals must be winning.
Ms. Flint should rest easy. (Demolition concerns in a moment.) First, not only has Cash for Clunkers provided much faster economic stimulus than expected, but it has also proved greener than expected:
Dealers estimated that they moved a quarter-million cars with the rebate money. The Transportation Department reported that of 120,000 rebate applications processed so far, the average gas mileage of cars being bought was 28.3 miles per gallon, for SUV’s 21.9 miles per gallon, and for trucks, 16.3 miles per gallon, all significantly higher than required to get a rebate.
“The statistics are much better than anybody dreamt they would be,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who, with Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, was the author of an early version of a “cash for clunkers” bill that would have required bigger improvements. The actual mileage gain seen so far, she said was not due to the details of the law but “the good judgment of the American people” [Nick Bunkley and Derrick Henry, "As 'Clunker' Rebates Help Ford, Aid May Be Extended," New York Times, 2009.08.04]
But what about the messy, stinky, leaky scrapping process? Sure, it takes energy to tear apart a car, and the process can release all sorts of engine fluids and other chemicals. But that happens with or without Cash for Clunkers. Much as I hate to think about it, my 1993 Jeep Wrangler will someday go to the scrap heap. (It will probably just fall apart beneath me on the highway someday, spewing its parts and fluids all over the road, rather than letting anyone haul it away to the old clunkers' home.) The same environmental impact accrues whether we scrap these gas guzzlers now or five, ten, twenty years down the road. Scrapping them now incurs that salvage cost now and saves us 5–20 years of operating emissions.
I would also speculate that scrapping them now means more recycling. Suppose I did Cash-for-Clunkerize my Jeep today. Some salvage yard would have a whole heap of 1993 Jeep Wrangler parts to resell. And the market for 1993 Jeep Wrangler parts will only get smaller. The sooner my parts are available, the more chance the salvage yard will have to sell them and make some money rather than having Jeep bits rusting and polluting their pristine junkyards.
Cash for Clunkers is making the conservatives mad because it is working so spectacularly well on every front. It's boosting the economy. It's making long-term improvements in fuel efficiency. It's providing a simple and vivid counterargument to all that "gummint can't do nothin' right" talk that GOP games-players have to sell to hide the fact that they can't come up with policies that do work.
But I thank Ms. Flint for her concern about the environment. Now I wonder what she thinks about that big nasty foreign oil pipeline being dug through our fair state....
Update 14:40 CDT: Alas, Ms. Flint misrepresents my argument:
Mr. Heidelberger at The Madville Times responds to my post by arguing that even though destroying vehicles probably does harm the environment, it's alright because it boosts the economy. Cory is beginning to sound a lot like a Republican!
Well, Ms. Flint is correct that Republicans tend to embrace economic gains without due regard for environmental impacts. But what I said was that we incur the same impacts of junking these cars now as we would years down the road. Fifty years from now (big picture, Miranda), the landfills will be as junked up as if we hadn't done Cash for Clunkers. But by junking the clunkers now, we eliminate the environmental impact of their continued use. The gain over a non-Cash-for-Clunkers scenario may be small, but it is still a gain. More to the point, Ms. Flint has not proven net environmental harm greater than if Cash for Clunkers had not passed.