The vice 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 astounding.
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 sail.
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 emissions.
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 cars.
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 from Vietnam.
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 some examples:
*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.
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