While leading US bishops and rabbis have recently been busy applying moral pressure to help protect the environment, the Bush administration was toying with proposals that would force car manufacturers to do so. Ultimately, however, neither initiative is likely to impose real changes on car makers.

A multi-faith coalition of senior religious figures this week urged some of America's leading car companies to make their cars more fuel-efficient. Meanwhile, the Bush administration was considering whether to raise fuel economy standards for sport utility vehicles (SUVs) by 1.5 miles per gallon, starting in 2005.

The US is the world's biggest polluter, and among the highest profile culprits is the nation's love affair with its gas-guzzling cars. It's an urgent and undeniable issue, but one on which remarkably little progress has been made.

Both of the approaches tried this week, moral and legislative, have been tried before. Both have proved sadly inadequate. Environmental groups have long argued the moral side of the anti-pollution debate. Yet for many consumers, the knowledge of pollution's dire impacts alone are simply not enough to change their purchasing habits: sales of sport utility vehicles have rocketed in the past decade, despite their abysmal fuel efficiency.

Legislation, however, can be a powerful tool. In the 1990s, California's requirement that manufacturers sell a minimum number of low emission vehicles in the future was copied by states across the country. It kicked off much of the research car makers have since carried out.

But the government's proposed new requirements sidestep the real issue. In Europe, consumers demand greater fuel efficiency because high taxes make fuel expensive, while in America politicians know that fuel tax hikes are enough to end a promising career.

Americans are being asked "what car Jesus would drive?" So far, the country's politicians have too often lacked the will to stand up to their public's belief that cheap fuel is a God-given right. Until they do, perhaps praying for change is not such a bad idea.

SOURCE: DATAMONITOR COMMENTWIRE (c) 2002 Datamonitor. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without prior written consent. Datamonitor shall not be liable for errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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