“Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”
– Vice President Dick Cheney, April 2001
“My administration is committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate change. We recognize our responsibility, and we will meet it – at home, in our hemisphere and in the world.”
– President George Bush, June 2001
The contradiction within the Bush administration, now made even more apparent by its latest Climate Action Report released last week, can be reconciled only by rewriting its much-criticized energy policy and recognizing the conservation is not only an important part of policy but, as the president suggests, an urgent responsibility.
By now, it is not much of a surprise that scientists accept that “greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing global mean surface air temperature and subsurface ocean temperature to rise,” as the action report for 2002 states. What is unusual is that the administration provides details on the likely effects of this change – and it isn’t just milder winters in Maine.
More drought, harsher pollution, more extreme weather and resulting damage and more flooding are just a few of the effects. Can humans adapt to such changes? In developed countries, probably, for those effects that are properly anticipated, but at a cost of health, quality of life and billions of dollars spent so that outdated coal- and oil-fired plants, inefficient automobiles and a generally wasteful fossil-fuel culture gets a free pass. It is a poor exchange.
The president’s national energy plan responds to the growing climate-change problem through tax incentives and voluntary improvements in efficiency. It wants more nuclear power, more access to federal land for energy extraction and an increased use of so-called clean-coal technology. What it does not want is better gas-mileage for cars and trucks, though standards have not been moved for two decades. It does not want to remove the exemptions from the Clean Air Act that for a generation have allowed coal plants to pollute at levels unacceptable for other plants. Mostly, and despite backtracking, it does not act as if conservation is anything more than a social nicety.
One of the traditional difficulties with conservation is that it usually comes in small increments over many years for a diffuse population. Conservation requires attention and commitment, and the results of power not used and pollution not created attracts neither corporate nor much public enthusiasm. With climate change, the risks are greater. That should be sufficient incentive for the administration to resolve the conflict in its own policies.