Car Talk’s Tom Magliozzi: An Unlikely Environmental Advocate

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

In this June 19, 2008 photo, brothers Ray, left, and Tom Magliozzi, co-hosts of National Public Radio's "Car Talk" show, pose for a photo in Cambridge, Mass. NPR says Tom Magliozzi died Monday, Nov. 3, 2014 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 77.

When I heard the news of CarTalk co-host Tom Magliozzi’s death, I, like some others, felt like I had lost a small piece of my childhood. Though Car Talk’s Saturday morning time slot made it less of a staple in my childhood than the weekday NPR shows — that banjo riff at the beginning doesn’t transport me back to my mom’s kitchen quite like those brass notes that herald All Things Considered do — the playful banter and jolly laughter of Click and Clack never fails to drum up feelings of nostalgia.

But I realized soon after I heard the news that I don’t remember what the Tappet brothers talked about during those weekend car trips years ago with my parents. Instead, one of the first recollections of the show that came to mind was a rerun I heard earlier this year, driving back from a reporting trip in West Virginia. In it, Tom railed against an advertisement for a new Subaru model, a car which he claimed had adopted “high horsepower stupidity” of other, less sensible and less climate-friendly cars. The episode, which originally aired in 2002, has stuck with me: Tom disparaged the car’s fuel efficiency and how low-mileage cars contributed to the U.S.’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Those references to the health of the planet weren’t something that Tom or his brother Ray shied away from in the 25 years that the show aired on NPR. The Tappet brothers were known advocates of high-efficiency vehicles and regretted America’s obsession with SUVs: in an interview in 2003, Tom claimed the reason so many Americans chose SUVs and trucks over cars was that, as a population, Americans are “quite susceptible to the ads showing SUVs chasing goats up the sides of mountains.”

They also didn’t hesitate to tell people to limit their driving. If listeners wanted to reduce their impact on climate change, “nothing is better than driving less,” the brothers said. “And when you do have to drive, why not use a vehicle that meets your needs … without 300 horsepower and four tons of steel left over?”

The brothers told one listener who called into the show that she might want to consider suggesting that her child’s school adopt a “no-idling” policy. Despite the fact that idling won’t hurt a car’s engine, they said, the pollution it creates is reason enough to avoid it.

“By sitting there idling for half an hour, not only are the parents contributing to global warming — a problem their kids will have to live with — but they’re adding pollution to the immediate school environment, where, presumably, kids are playing and learning,” Tom said. “So you might want to start a movement at your school, and see if they’ll set a policy and put up some signs along the curb requiring parents to shut off their engines while they wait.”

But their concern for the environment went beyond giving personalized advice to listeners. In October 2007, the brothers wrote to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, urging its members to ignore the objections of the automobile industry and increase fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks to 35 mpg.

“The onslaught of ‘we can’t… it’ll ruin us… you’re denying Americans a choice of vehicles’ begins every time we the people — through our elected representatives — try to bring the auto industry, kicking and screaming into the modern era. And every time, their predictions of motorized-skateboard futures have failed to materialize,” the brothers wrote.

“Let us repeat that, because the historical record bears it out to a tee. Every single time they’ve resisted safety, environmental, or fuel economy regulations, auto industry predictions have turned out, in retrospect, to be fear-mongering bull-feathers. Isn’t it time we (you?) stop falling for this 50 year-long line of baloney?”

That standard of 35 mpg was put in place in December 2007, though the timeline for getting there was longer than the Tappet brothers called for.

Cars occupy an interesting place in climate change discussions: the transportation sector accounts for 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but the vehicles we drive are rapidly evolving, driven in part by mileage standards adopted by the Obama administration in 2012. Car Talk succeeded in navigating that debate, balancing a respect for the environment with an endless curiosity and love of the cars we drive, and a belief that they can always be improved.