by David T. Jones
One of our frequent contributors points out that today’s American diplomats are increasingly required to think green as well as red, white, and blue as they work to promote national interests. Yet too much of the global climate change discussion involves demonization and “gotchas” driven by ideological polarization. According to this essay, we should be thinking mostly in terms of tradeoffs. —Ed .
Zsa Zsa Gabor, perhaps apocryphally, is attributed with saying that “After 40, it’s your face or your fanny.”
That is, there is a tradeoff in life between staying slimly fit (the fanny) and keeping your face wrinkle-free. Alternatively, plump (and wrinkle-free) faces meant that the nether regions of our bodies also expanded.
While “Botox” may now allow some to avoid the stark Gaborian judgment, in other areas the concept of tradeoffs continues to rule. Thus if you buy a home in the Washington suburbs, you can live relatively close to the city and reduce commuting time, but you will own a smaller, older home in a built up area. If you want a larger, more modern home on a more expansive property beyond the Beltway, you live further away from the city and spend more time commuting. Neither is a universally “right” choice; but recognizing your tradeoffs is essential. It is silly to buy that modern home on a quarter acre lot—and then complain all the time about the length of commute.
Tradeoffs—sometimes masquerading as “opportunity costs”—are constant problems for those of us who want it all (without commensurate cost). And so it is with environmentalism/global warming/”greens”/tree-huggers/climate change deniers in all their politically correct or pejorative labels.
In addressing global “climate change,” environmentalists are attempting to convince the population that a potential long term (not assured in any near term manner) benefit is worth near term pain (the exact intensity of this pain being carefully discounted). A wide variety of ostensibly environmental-friendly actions are proposed. As they come under review, it is useful to recognize that pluses and minuses are attached to all. These environmentally related tradeoffs are increasingly global international relations issues. U.S. diplomats must think “green” as well as red, white, and blue in advancing and defending national interests.
So from the “micro” to the “macro” let us examine some of the shades of green in play.
Making Light of the Matter
Some sections of our country and nations throughout the world are mandating the end of incandescent light bulbs to be replaced by florescent bulbs. Great idea! Well, maybe second thoughts are in order. To be sure the florescent bulb is significantly more efficient and longer-lasting, paying for its additional costs in relatively short order. However, that longer life-expectancy is eroded by frequent switching on and off; most are not subject to rheostat control; and there is a distinct disposal problem as they contain mercury. And (on the trivial but not irrelevant side) many people don’t like how they look under florescent light. One can imagine a black market in incandescent lights (akin to the full flow toilet) for those who want to turn down the lights instead of investing in wrinkle cream.
Is there an efficient, inexpensive alternative to petroleum based fuels, particularly for our automobiles? Is there an efficient mix of some alternative fuel with gasoline? Attention has focused on ethanol and its production, at this juncture primarily from corn. The positive element of a bio-gasoline mix for almost every country would be a bit of weaning from petroleum imports and consequently improved national/continental security. But there are some downsides, starting with lower fuel mileage. Moreover, using corn as the primary source of ethanol will hardly be cost free as corn production requires additional land, fertilizers, and equipment to produce it. Higher costs for corn will also increase some food costs and mean less corn exported. Moreover, as another potential negative, a recent study indicates that a gasoline-ethanol mix, if adopted by all automobiles, would incrementally raise deaths from ozone-induced smog. Would more deaths from lung conditions be worth reduced oil imports?
In some respects, it is regrettable that ethanol production and corn have been so strongly linked as there are other alternative fuel sources for producing ethanol (sugar cane is a more efficient source). Nor is ethanol the only potential fuel product/additive. Butanol, for example, is easier to extract from any vegetable source—including wood chips—and doesn’t need expensive corn as the basis for its production.
Substantial attention has been generated for several years over “hybrid” autos, that is, those running on a combination of a smaller gasoline engine and an electric battery. The result has been vehicles with higher fuel mileage—but higher initial purchasing costs. There are government tax credits for purchasing hybrid cars (but these credits are also a societal cost), and studies now suggest that a purchaser will break even within five years of buying a new hybrid car. Still to be determined are longer term costs associated with repairs and battery replacements.
At this point, hybrids are clearly improving in quality (speed/acceleration) and are available in a wider range of models. They have yet to break out of the niche market of upper scale, more socially conscious “green” buyers who can afford to pay more.
Micro Power and Macro Power
If you need only enough power to run the lights and appliances in a small home, one might consider solar panels (although constructing, maintaining, and replacing the panels is not cost free). And windmills have pumped water for centuries. To be sure when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind ceases to blow, alternatives are needed; however, were the households of every Western country to equip themselves with such micro alternatives, there could be energy savings.
But major industries, manufacturing operations, transportation nets and the like need huge amounts of “macro” power–which are created by massive hydroelectric facilities, coal/gas/oil fired power plants, or nuclear reactors. We wish to eliminate “dirty” coal fired power plants; however, converting to natural gas is expensive and such gas is increasingly costly (as well as being a key ingredient for much of the chemical industry). Parenthetically, there are those who say that using natural gas for home heating is akin to washing windows with champagne. Moreover, coal is widespread (the United States is estimated to have a 250-year supply) and inexpensive; using more rather than less would enhance national security instead of burning oil or natural gas. Apparently headed in this direction, China reportedly is scheduled to add 562 coal-fired plants over the next eight years—cheap with proven technology.
Should one press for nuclear energy as an alternative? Proponents tout its “clean” nonpolluting nature and security from foreign disruption of oil/gas. A number of countries, including Canada, France, Korea, and Japan have committed heavily to nuclear power; others such as Austria, afflicted with nuclear allergy, have eliminated nuclear reactors or project doing so (Germany). The United States still has the greatest nuclear capacity; however, no new commercial reactor has come on line since 1996. Ostensibly, the government has sought to ease the certification process, but it has been over 20 years since construction began on a new nuclear reactor. Moreover, it appears to take approximately 10 years to construct a reactor; one, which began commercial operation in 1996, started construction in 1972. Not to put too fine a point on it, popular acceptance of nuclear power remains in serious question and resistance to various proposals for disposal of radioactive waste continues to make significant expansion of nuclear energy problematic. And instances such as the earthquake damage sustained by Japan’s largest nuclear reactor in July 2007 make nuclear power an even harder sell.
All of these choices from light bulbs to nuclear power reactors (and many others) have pluses and minuses. They are not “right” or “wrong” by definition. Countries and individuals can decide to adopt and/or support some, all, or none of the above based on rational, logical, economically grounded decisions.
One can examine “green” related decisions on the basis of:
• The Earth Is Getting Warmer. Regardless of the time frame involved
(years, centuries, millennia), humanity will need to adjust—as life on earth has adjusted to significantly warmer climates in the past.
• The Earth Is Getting Cooler. Whatever the current temperature, there is a reasonable possibility that it is a warming blip in a long term cooling trend. If the earth is headed into a cooling trend, humanity will need to adjust—as life on earth has adjusted to significantly cooler climates in the past.
• The Earth Will Stay Pretty Much the Same. As long as the earth exists, there will be “climate change.” There has been such change for millennia and will be so for millennia to come. Regardless, of what happens (or doesn’t happen), humanity will need to adjust to the circumstances associated with larger global populations addressing limited resources.
“Green” issues are neither inherently liberal nor conservative. After all, concern for the general welfare is a “liberal” tradition. And, in essence a “conservative” wishes to conserve; for example, in the United States, one of the first and most energetic conservationists was President Theodore Roosevelt.
Nor are green concerns limited to developed versus developing states. Nor should they be the preserve of one set of developed states. However, when developing states surpass developed states in generating greenhouse gases, it is unlikely that countries such as the United States will embrace Kyoto Treaty-directed restrictions when economic competitors such as China and India do not.
Consequently, demonization rather than debate over “green” issues is inherently self destructive and unproductive. Those wrapping themselves in green all too often leave the impression of days-of-yore Puritans who could not stand the thought that somewhere there was someone who was having fun. Or they project the personalities of old time commissars who were most happy when audiences were forced to memorize the vaporings of a Great Leader. It is not demonic to drive an SUV. Reading critiques of global warming is not the equivalent of fondling child porn. Equating critics of green logic with Holocaust denial or Neville Chamberlain-level error may win sound bites, but it won’t win converts.
As for the push back from those being criticized, it seems to concentrate on “gotcha” style denunciation of hypocrisy, such as the amount of energy consumed by the Al Gore Tennessee home in contrast to the George W. Bush Texas home or whether the iconic Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, should have driven a smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle when traveling across Canada making “green” pitches. Or whether all of the environmentalists should get out of their private planes and walk, etc. But real men can eat granola and ride bicycles to work. “Tree-hugging femi-Nazis” may be a satisfying rejoinder for those being depicted as Gaia rapists but is more likely to contribute to global overheating than cooler discussions.
To a degree, debate over the societal shade of green we wish to adopt is a reflection of luxury. There are prudent efficiencies that can be implemented without economic ruin. And perhaps a pink filter on that fluorescent bulb will prevent looking like a corpse in your bathroom mirror.
U.S. Foreign Policy
More generally, the U.S. position on climate change/Kyoto Treaty has become another cudgel with which our opponents belabor us. It joins our Iraq policy, our refusal to embrace the International Criminal Court and the Antipersonnel Landmine Treaty, and disinterest in devoting 0.7 percent of our GNP to assisting developing countries as hallmarks of our innately invidious nature. We are not prepared to say “yes” or even “yes, but…” to any of these critics astride their particular hobbyhorses, but “just say no” has its own limits. Finding a way to say “no, but…” is going to be an extended challenge. The first step will be to argue for an end to ideology when addressing the topic.
David T. Jones, retired senior Foreign Service Officer, frequently publishes articles in American Diplomacy. A specialist in European/NATO politico-military affairs and arms control, he was also political minister counselor in Ottawa. Since retirement, he has published several hundred articles and columns in Canadian and U.S. publications.