The Toyota Prius and Climate Change: Good Technology versus the Misuse of Science -- An ENN Commentary

I guess it was inevitable. I am an environmental scientist. I live in Berkeley, California. I work, eat, and breathe environmental issues daily. It was therefore fated that my family would buy a Prius.

I guess it was inevitable. I am an environmental scientist. I live in Berkeley, California. I work, eat, and breathe environmental issues daily. I know that global warming is a serious problem ”“ I’ve been working on the science and policy of it for more than two decades. It was therefore fated that my family would buy a Prius ”“ the tremendously popular hybrid gas-electric car from Toyota. And while I expected that buying it would make me feel like I was taking another personal step toward helping address the serious problem of global warming, I was not prepared for some of the other effects it would have on me.

I was born and raised in New York City. Even more relevant, I learned to drive there, which left me with four particular driving characteristics: the ability to parallel park in tiny spaces, an uncanny knack for finding street parking anywhere, a suspicion that other drivers are going to do something stupid at any moment, and a tendency toward moderately aggressive driving (though my family might challenge the modifier “moderately”).

This car has changed my driving habits. The Prius comes with a remarkable computer screen capable of displaying sufficient information to warm any data freak’s heart. For example, it displays a graph of average fuel efficiency every five minutes. It shows how much energy the regenerative breaking system puts back into its special battery. It displays instantaneous miles per gallon, along with a schematic showing which part of the gas-electric-hybrid system is in use at any moment. Frankly, the display should have a warning sticker: the first month I had the car I almost drove off the road watching my performance.

My goal, which used to be to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time, is now to get from point A to point B with the highest level of fuel efficiency. I’ve gone from a lead-foot to a feather-foot. I wave at other Prius owners. I can drive from my home to the State Capitol in Sacramento at 65 miles per hour and get 50 miles per gallon. But I also know I can drive the same route at 60 miles per hour and get 52 miles per gallon and arrive only seven minutes later. I love knowing that I’m going three times as far on a gallon of gas as the owners of large SUVs speeding past me ”“ especially now that gas is approaching $3 per gallon in some parts of the Bay Area. And yes, while I know it is uncharitable, I admit to feelings of smugness.

But I also consider the Prius to be more than just a car. It has become a symbol for the ongoing misuse of facts by anti-science climate critics. Patrick Michaels, whom I consider a poster child of the anti-science climate minority, has attacked it in several columns he has written. While he says he owns, or owned, an early version of the Honda hybrid (the unpopular two-seater Insight), he also has regularly and consistently dissed hybrids. For example, in a 2004 Washington Times opinion piece, Michaels criticized a Washington Post story that labeled the Prius “the fastest selling car in America” by pointing out that many other models sell more cars.


As with many of the other things climate critics say that are half true and yet completely wrong, Michaels failed to do his research. It turns out that for at least ten straight months in 2003 the Prius was indeed the fastest selling car in America, which J.D. Powers defined as the car that spends the shortest amount of time on a dealer’s lot before being sold ”“ in other words, they sell incredibly fast. And that is still true ”“ in fact, the latest data show the average time spent on a car lot for hybrids in early 2005 was 16 days; for gasoline cars the average was 65 days. The vast majority of Prius’s don’t even make it to the lot ”“ they are sold before the delivery truck even arrives at the dealers.

Michaels also said that Toyota will “never” make a profit on hybrids. He has said, pointing to the failure of the US Big Three car companies to make a hybrid, “it was obvious that the technology would not work in anything approaching a cost-effective fashion.” He has also said “few people will want them.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Toyota says it already makes a profit on the Prius. The technology is clearly cost effective to consumers ”“ I’ll save more in gas costs over the life of my Prius than any premium I may have paid for being an early adopter. Demand is not only high ”“ it is growing, as is production. Toyota now says it expects to sell a million hybrids next year, and ultimately nothing but hybrids. The market is expanding with hybrid SUVs and luxury cars. Toyota may produce hybrids shortly in Kentucky, and California and Michigan are competing for new hybrid factories.

As a Toyota spokesman said about the late 1990s "We invested in hybrids," he says. "Another company bought a humongous SUV company. You make your decisions and you live with it." Indeed, it seems no coincidence that the Big Three are now scrambling to produce hybrids. Junk climate science leads to junk climate policy, and potentially ”“ as some US automakers recently discovered ”“ junk bonds.

We won’t turn the tide on a problem as massive as climate change overnight. And hybrids are just part of the solution ”“ designing walkable communities, investing in public transportation, and developing alternative fuels must also be part of the mix. But the success of the Prius shows that cost-effective and, yes, even desirable solutions to climate change are out there. And the icing on the cake? It’s fun to drive.


Based in Oakland, California, The Pacific Institute is an independent, nonpartisan think-tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security. Information on The Pacific Institute's funders is posted on its website.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick is a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences Water Science and Technology Board, a lifetime member of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and President of the Pacific Institute, Oakland. Dr. Gleick did some of the earliest research on the impacts of climate change for water resources in the early 1980s. His findings, suggesting dramatic impacts of climate change for snowfall, snowpack, and runoff, still form the basis for our understanding of some important risks of climate change, despite vast improvements in models, computers, and climate analysis over the subsequent two decades. He was recently appointed to the UN-Sigma Xi Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development analyzing approaches and policies for adapting to and mitigating climate change.

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Source: An ENN Commentary