What the VW Scandal Teaches Us About Climate Action

Government investigators announced on Friday that Volkswagen has been circumventing U.S. pollution standards for years. The company installed software in its popular Beetle, Jetta, Passat and other models to hide the amount of tailpipe emissions when the cars were getting tested. But when they were on the road, the cars released as much as 40 times the pollution allowed by the Clean Air Act.

This shocking way of doing business has revealed an important truth in the fight against climate change: the value of government safeguards and government oversight in protecting public health and reducing dangerous pollution.

VW has held a beloved place in American culture. When I graduated from college, many of my friends drove across the country and most hit the road in a VW van or Bug. Through the years, these cars have represented youth, freedom and quirkiness. Now they will also be associated with crookedness.

Not only did VW lie to the Environmental Protection Agency, but it also fooled its customers. The company marketed these diesel-powered cars as being environmentally friendly, yet they were pumping out nitrogen oxide, which is linked to respiratory illness, heart disease, increased hospital admissions and premature death. The deceit came to light just days after VW unveiled plans to produce 20 plug-in hybrids and all-electric models by 2020. They framed the announcement as an effort to reduce climate change pollution.

How can we trust this company -- or other polluters -- if we don't have a system for verifying what they say?

Every single Republican presidential candidate has called for shrinking the government. Many have taken aim at the EPA and the Clean Air Act in particular. Corporations, they say, can be counted on to do the right thing. Jeb Bush has implied that private industry can address climate change through innovation -- no government action required.

The Volkswagen story exposes the limits of this approach.

Though many corporations honor commitments to reduce dangerous pollution, some cut corners and cheat. The marketplace doesn't always have mechanisms to correct bad actors. VW drivers, for instance, had no idea their cars were programmed to trick air quality monitors, and so the company paid no price: VW is the largest auto company in the world.

Only when government investigators exposed VW's deceit did the stock market respond: the company's shares dropped by 20 percent on Monday. I applaud EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and the EPA staff for doing their job conscientiously and well, despite the constant attacks from Republican leaders in Congress and on the campaign trail.

Government safeguards and oversight help ensure companies clean up their act. Thanks to federal and state agencies, Clean Air Act programs cut six common pollutants (including nitrogen oxide) by an average of 72 percent over 40 years, even while GDP grew by 219 percent. In one year alone, clean air standards prevented 205,000 early deaths.

We can make similar strides with climate change pollution, but only if companies follow clear standards and government agencies hold them to account. Ten years ago, drivers had just a handful of hybrids to choose from. Then the U.S. established clean car standards to cut carbon pollution from new cars in half, and now consumers have scores of hybrids and other fuel-efficient models to choose from.

The Clean Power Plan has set carbon pollution limits for our nation's other major source of climate change emissions: power plants. The plan gives states a great deal of flexibility in how they achieve carbon reductions but they must meet a firm target and confirm that they are tackling the climate threat.

In December, the international community will meet in Paris to finalize a new global agreement for combating climate change. Many companies, cities and other institutions will also pledge to carbon pollution as part of the talks. These commitments could deliver significant carbon reductions -- but only if they include a system for reporting and monitoring progress.

Empty promises and intentionally misleading maneuvers leave a bad taste in the mouth: I will never buy a Volkswagen car again. But I have faith in standards wisely implanted. We must trust, but verify.