Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Carrot vs. The Sledgehammer

A friend from Germany recently wrote me an e-mail soliciting my opinion on the Montreal Conference and climate change issues in general. It struck me that I have not written an environmental piece for my blog in some time. It seems that now, as we reflect on the many messages of John Lennon, 25 years removed from his assassination, that one of the lasting lessons was the importance of mindfulness. Lennon urged us to be constantly thinking about how to make the world a better place. I try to embody that spirit with somewhat limited success. As such, I dedicate this blog piece to his memory.

A lot of Americans feel that the goals and intent of the Kyoto Conference on Climate Change and the subsequent protocol pursue an end that is right and prudent, but would have an extremely negative impact on the U.S. (and indeed the wider world) economy. Many Americans feel that Europe and other developed nations agreed to extremely drastic cuts, as called for by Kyoto, with the knowledge and understanding that the U.S. would never sign on. This creates a perception that the United States is far less environmental than Europe (which I would generally acknowledge as true when discussing politicians, but not when discussing individual citizens).

It should be pointed out that many developed countries, which agreed to serious and real cuts in emissions, are nowhere near fulfilling their obligations to comply with emissions reductions. A particularly poignant example would be Tony Blair's United Kingdom. It could be argued that these countries signed on for reductions when their economies were strong and now that they are in a tenable position they find compliance to be a more difficult proposition. To comply when the United States did not would put them at an economic disadvantage, which is what the U.S. has argued all along.

So, the Europe Union ccountries signed off on Kyoto and the United States did not. Does this mean that Europeans are tree-huggers and Americans are lumberjacks? There is the belief in the EU that because the United States government is not in favor of the Kyoto Protocol that therefore the U.S. is hostile to the environmental movement. If you look more closely, the problem is a matter of perception. Upon scrutiny you will find that many politicians, even Republicans, hold quite "green" views (insert John McCain and Tom Harkin’s names in this category). Though, admittedly, many are akin to Neanderthals when it comes to environmental issues (insert Tom Delay and Daniel Inouye’s names in this category). Despite this perception, quite clearly the concept of sustainable development is gaining much traction in the United States.

The difference is in how you effect change. Europe believes in a central model with forced change through government mandates. It is a "network model, where government, private firms, and civil society interact in spaces in between their formal roles" (to quote a friend of mine). This is simply not how the U.S. works on any public policy issue. There are many in this country who think the European model is a better approach, including myself, but it is not an attainable goal when you consider the American economic culture of laissez-faire capitalism and the concept of Manifest Destiny. We do not undo what we have done, we learn and move on.

I am not a Green in the political sense because I vehemently oppose environmental policy that neglects all other aspects of society and economics. The Green Party movement in Europe and the United States has been one dimensional since its inception. Their Party platform is pretty heavily skewed towards the belief that any type of growth and development is bad. I could not disagree more strongly! I am a avid believer in the, Al Gore espoused, philosophy of sustainable development. No, Al Gore didn’t invent the concept of sustainable development any more than he invented the internet. But our former Vice President did give wings to the concept which was first formalized at the United Nations by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. Al Gore believed that you could create an entire economy around environmental stewardship. I agree completely.
Three people that I know well are working in the environmental sector, but each comes at the problem from a different angle. I have a friend working in Oregon on tradable pollution credits. I have a brother-in-law working on building turbines which maximize the productivity of the windmills. I have another friend at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado who works with businesses who are trying to maximize their energy efficiency to help reduce costs. All these efforts are good examples of how the environmental movement will move forward in the United States.

In Oregon there is a state and local effort to control pollution going forward through these tradable pollution credits. This will help regulate pollution while allowing flexibility. Those companies in the forefront of environmental responsibility will be able to further profit by selling their pollution credits to those companies which need to catch up. Likewise there is a financial penalty for the practice of polluting. The incentive exists to promote sustainable business practices.

My brother-in-law, who admittedly lives in Europe, but his company sells windmills in the United States, works for a private corporation that makes a profit off environmental sources of energy. If the government was in charge of technological innovation windmills would look like the old mills you find in Holland. Private innovation in developing new and ever more efficient technology will be the central component in reducing our footprint.

The last component towards change is the role of the government. NRELs approach is to educate as opposed to mandate, working with businesses that want to reduce waste. Once you educate businesses that an initial investment will yield vast savings in the long run and be environmental then you will find businesses willing to take those steps. Who cares that the motive was profit as opposed to environmental responsibility.

In addition to these three efforts there is a new “green” industry growing. That industry runs the gambit from recycled paper to recycled building supplies. More and more products are offering a recycled alternative. Everything from reclaimed wood and cement that uses recycled glass to engines that burn used vegetable oil. I believe that very soon it will be not only financially possible, but fiscally responsible to build homes that not only blend into their environment but are in fact built entirely out of recycled materials and in such a way as to have a minimal impact on its surroundings.

In discussing this piece a friend pointed out that the United States needs to realize that Kyoto is a WHEN, not an IF. Climate change is a reality and there is little to no dissent in the scientific community to the hypothesis that it is a man made (or man accelerated) problem.

The U.S. approach is, and always will be, a free market approach. I am not a believer in pure laissez-faire capitalism. It is simply too hard to quantify the environment into dollars and cents to make the benefit-cost analysis of environmental protection appear profitable. As such, some regulation is necessary. Environmentalists in the United States are getting hip to this market driven approach. Many have abandoned the “beat you over the head with regulations” approach.

The sooner Europeans catch on, the less frustrating the efforts will be for them. There must be cultural sensitivity from Europe to the fact that America works significantly differently. The central government, in its current context, does not hand down decrees. You watch! This patch-work of state and municipal efforts, combined with the economic might of the American shopper will have a very real and powerful effect. It requires educating the American people, and that is where the federal government and nonprofit environmental groups can play a key role.

How about this for an ad campaign: "If every car in America was a hybrid, not one American soldier would have to die building 'democracy' in Iraq!"


Eric the Papa said...

VEry good blog. I agree 99% with your perspective. A US historian, David E. Nye -- currently prof. of American Studies in Syddansk Universitetscenter (Odense,DK) has written several articles and books on American energy culture as part of the general American culture. Americans want to perceive their land as one without "limits" and bridle at shortages. But we also have a century of conservation policies dating back -- at least -- to Teddy Roosevelt. So with proper political leadership the US can change. But it won't happen with the "oil men" who currently run the country.

gracie said...

and THAT is exactly why i can't stand politics despite the fact that i spent four years majoring in it.

promises made, to lure people to or to serve some immediate gain, with barely any hope of ever coming to fruition. i suppose that's all fine and dandy when dealing with taxation issues or revitalization of an area (ok it's not) but it's not cool when it adversely affects something as critical to our existence as the environment.

i suppose ignorance is bliss yet again...