President Bush’s idea that voluntary corporate efforts can stop climate change is wrong, and it’s wrong because Dick Cheney was right. That paradox, along with a new Congress and many progressive Western governors, may outline a path to a real climate policy in 2007.
President famously called most conservation measures "a personal
virtue" but not the stuff of national energy policy. Installing
efficient light bulbs, he as much as said, may feel good, but
it’s not going to keep Montanans or New Yorkers warm. Nor
will such action prevent the ice caps from melting. So Cheney,
surprisingly, was right: The scale of the climate problem is
Top scientists like NASA’s James Hansen
tell us we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 90
percent or more by the end of this century or we’ll pass a
threshold beyond which catastrophic changes are inevitable.
We’re simply not going to solve it by asking motivated people
to drive Priuses, install solar panels or replace their old
refrigerators. There aren’t enough of these good people, and
the actions they’re capable of are insignificant. For this
reason, relying on individual, or even corporate, voluntary
measures is like asking everyone on a becalmed boat to blow towards
The stark reality of the inadequacy of such
measures hit home to me when I recently visited one of the greenest
businesses in the United States, a Minnesota-based cosmetics
company named Aveda. Aveda wants to reduce its greenhouse gas
emissions to zero, if possible. The traditional way to do that is
through efficiency and the purchase of renewable energy credits
from wind power.
But because utility rates in Minnesota
are so cheap, at about 4 cents a kilowatt hour -- that’s 4
cents for one dishwasher cycle’s worth of energy --
efficiency projects have limited or unacceptable return on
investment. You can’t make money saving energy when energy is
almost free. The only other option -- buying wind-power credits to
make up for emissions you can’t avoid -- is coming under
increasing scrutiny because such purchases are seen as only a
partial measure, and most don’t end up reducing global
In short, even an enormously motivated company
that actively wants to go carbon neutral -- Bush’s best-case
scenario of voluntary activism -- probably can’t. At least,
not without bankrupting itself with expensive, long-payback
efficiency work and even more expensive, even longer-payback
renewables projects, like installing huge amounts of solar panels.
The reality of the situation is that American businesses and
citizens simply don’t have the tools to solve the climate
problem. They’re going into battle against the greatest
threat to human survival holding light bulbs and driving hybrid
So what can a willing corporation do? When Davy
Crocket ran out of bullets at the Alamo, he reportedly used his gun
as a club. That seems to be the only viable path to carbon
neutrality for corporations today.
Businesses need to
shoot all the efficiency and renewable energy bullets they have,
but they also need to use their own business as a club -- battering
legislators with advocacy, using their influence over customers to
create a grassroots movement, and allocating advertising dollars
toward a climate campaign aimed at a broad audience. Individuals
must do the same -- with their votes, their pens and their feet,
literally storming the barricades in the same way they drove other
social transformations like civil rights or America’s exit
Yes, they should also screw in efficient
light bulbs, but without the delusion that such action is enough.
Once individuals or corporations break into the legislative arena,
opportunities abound, and many of them even make money. Here are
*Changing obsolete transformers that
stepdown high-voltage power to household levels could
cost-effectively save 12 billion dishwasher-cycles of electricity
annually. But it would require government action to specify the
most efficient models.
*Establishing revenue-neutral tax
changes (like Gore’s idea to eliminate the payroll tax and
replace it with a pollution tax) would create market mechanisms to
drive down emissions. But such action requires legislation.
Some of our problems -- civil rights was one, health care
is probably another -- are just too big to be solved without
government’s help. To solve climate change, we need to
embrace the liberal idea that government can be a tool to make our
lives better, while taking the conservative advice that feeling
good about the way we live doesn’t change much and is not
sufficient national policy.
Auden Schendler is a
contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News
(hcn.org). He directs environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing
Co. in Aspen, Colorado.