Americans protect lifestyle over environment

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, December 2, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — While you and I were preparing for a nice Thanksgiving dinner, our man in The Hague was getting a pie in the face.

I’m talking about Frank Loy, head of the U.S. delegation to the recent two weeks of talks on global warming. Loy had an impossible job: To hammer out, with 170 other nations, an agreement to address at last the causes of climate change, and — here’s the impossible part — to get an agreement with a prayer of being ratified back home.

That proved undoable. The talks collapsed, treatyless, and Loy got a pie in the face, thanks to a protester who at least could have chosen pumpkin (it was cream).

Loy’s unhappy challenge was to represent a country that has 4 percent of the world’s population, yet produces 24 percent of its greenhouse gases — and doesn’t really want to change.

In the 1997 Kyoto agreement, developed nations agreed to freeze carbon emissions at 1990 levels, and then to reduce them gradually through 2010 (by 7 percent in our case). Since then, our emissions have instead risen more than 10 percent above the 1990 level, thanks to a booming economy — although attributing it to the economy isn’t entirely cricket. Our per capita emission of carbon dioxide is twice as high as in other advanced countries, although our economy is far from twice theirs per capita.

Nonetheless, our opening position in The Hague was essentially that we would continue down the same path, relying on existing forests and farmlands to absorb the offending gases, along with credits we’d buy from countries whose failing industries have reduced harmful emissions.

Loy did compromise, but he had little wiggle room to do so, the U.S. political climate not having warmed to an acceptance of responsibility anywhere near the size of our contribution to the problem. That, along with other countries’ inflexibility, doomed the agreement.

Part of the problem lies in the power of America’s oil and auto industries. But much of it lies in you and me. We’d rather be spared any inconvenience. People who otherwise consider individual responsibility the pinnacle of virtue seem unable to perceive an individual responsibility to protect an endangered planet.

We prefer to protect our lifestyle.

As irrefutable evidence of climate change has piled up, we have marched heedlessly toward greater and greater energy consumption, building ever-larger homes and — particularly nonsensically — driving ever-larger cars. We seem now to consider wheeled and armored living rooms a part of our American birthright: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and SUVs.

Meanwhile, worried scientists have moved beyond offering proof of the ill effects of human activity to proposing solutions. A recent report from five federal research centers recommends a combination of market incentives, tougher pollution standards and investments in clean energy. We could speed development of energy-efficient cars and trucks, lower our energy bills, reduce our dependence on imported oil and cut power plant and auto emissions’ contribution not just to global warming — but to smog and acid rain as well.

A happy prospect. And a politically hopeless one — but not because it would ruin our economy. U.S. industry, once united against responding to global climate change, is quickly moving to the opposite view. Companies such as DuPont, Ford Motor, Weyerhaeuser, Georgia-Pacific, Sunoco and Texaco, have become "green power" advocates. Getting ahead of this problem is smart, they say, not just for the environment, but for the economy.

In the abstract, the public seems to understand. Poll after poll shows a commitment to environmental protection. But assuming individual responsibility is another matter. We learned to recycle; we could learn to conserve energy — but it would take a little political leadership.

America’s political reality, however, is mired in old thinking — or non-thinking — which holds that any change in our habits will harm us, and is blind to the harm that stems from our failure to change.

"Governments have spent two weeks essentially arguing about how they can do as little as possible to reduce the threat of global climate change," said Tony Juniper, vice chairman of Friends of the Earth. And Greenpeace, another environmental group, said the meeting at The Hague "will be remembered as the moment when governments abandoned the promise of global cooperation to protect the planet Earth."

That’s too gloomy. There’ll be other chances to find international agreement on how to protect the planet. The question for Americans is: When and how will we figure out that we share in the responsibility to do so?

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