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Editorial: Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Heads out of the sand

President Obama's executive order on greenhouse gas emissions is a refreshing first step toward reversing the government's harmful inaction on climate change.

With a stroke of his pen, Obama repudiated eight years of the Bush administration's head-in-the-sand approach to global warming. The president directed Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson to consider California's request to establish its own limits for emissions from cars and trucks, action that Bush resisted.

If the EPA approves the application, as expected, it would allow California and other states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to set tougher emissions standards than the federal government.

New Jersey has been at the forefront of efforts to limit carbon dioxide, the gas emitted from vehicle tailpipes and factory smokestacks. In Pennsylvania, cars and trucks produce one-third of the state's air pollution.

Obama's action won't impact the environment or public health quickly. In the short term, his order is more important as a clear signal that his administration intends to reverse Bush policies and to actively fight global warming. That's a welcome move, and should send a message to other nations that the United States is ready to lead on this issue.

The president also ordered new federal rules directing automakers to start building more fuel-efficient cars, as required by law. This effort places greater costs on the reeling auto industry, but Detroit automakers already bargained for fundamental change when they accepted a bailout by taxpayers.

While these strong steps make a statement, there is more to be done comprehensively in Washington. A patchwork of varying state standards on air pollution isn't the best way to attack global warming. Congress needs to take a sterner approach with fuel-efficiency standards, and find a way to cap greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

And, as opposed as motorists are to the idea, raising the federal gas tax still makes good sense as public policy. It would generate money for needed infrastructure projects and encourage more commuters to drive clean cars or use mass transit. The spike last summer to $4 gasoline showed that consumers can change their habits when prices climb.

The goals are to reduce dependency on oil, to ease the national security risks that come with such dependency, and to gradually ease a building environmental crisis.

The sooner the United States prepares for that future, the better.