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     Volume 4 Issue 68 | October 21, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Leading By Example?

Farah Ghuznavi

To environmental conservationists - religious or otherwise - the recent spate of natural disasters must confirm their view that God (and nature!) is firmly on their side. After years of discussing climate change and dire warnings about the consequences of humanity's flagrant disregard for the state of the planet, it is as if nature is striking back - with truly terrible consequences for those living in the disaster zones.

As ever, it is not necessarily the perpetrators who are punished. Except perhaps in an indirect way (as President Bush is now finding out!). The United States has been the biggest environmental offender for decades, and yet has - until recently - remained largely unscathed by the consequences of its rampant consumerism and insatiable energy consumption. But the chaos left behind by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is a wake-up call for the US and its extravagant, open-road way of life - one that it ignores at its peril.

The damage done by the recent hurricanes is staggering. The Gulf refines half of America's oil and gas, and around 90% of the oil and 70% of the gas from the region was knocked out of production; it could take six months to return to pre-hurricane production levels. With record highs in global oil prices, the inevitable threat posed by spiralling fuel costs looms over the entire US economy.

As a result of all this, even a sheepish President Bush has now (rather belatedly!) declared himself to be in favour of energy conservation!! But the energy-hogging US consumer may take even longer to persuade…

The gleaming monsters - gigantic sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and super-wide trucks and Hummers (civilian version of military Humvees) - continue dominating the highways, as if oil prices were rock-bottom. Indeed, the big topic of conversation among Hummer fans is not the shocking state of oil prices, but contempt for the supposed "wimpiness" of the latest model of their favourite vehicle.

The H3 Hummer is being sold as the more compact, cheaper and friendlier version of the over-the-top H1 Hummer, whose fuel-efficiency achieves 19 miles per gallon, compared with as little as 8 on the old model! But the hard-core Hummer fans could not care less: "If you have to worry or even discuss gas mileage you should be shopping at KIA or Hyundai. Go hug a tree…you spend $120,000 on a truck, who cares about the mileage?"

Several political leaders in the US as well as the president - have issued calls for moderation, but are all having a hard time practising what they preach. The governor of Georgia took the absurd step of closing his state's entire school system for two days recently, supposedly to save diesel fuel on school buses. But he did absolutely nothing to cut back his own travel around the state, involving elaborate motorcades, security arrangements and local police vehicles!

Similarly bizarre was the President's announcement that the air conditioning at the White House would be kept at 72°F to preserve energy! The number of such measures necessary to compensate for the energy costs of even a single Air Force One flight to Louisiana (of which there have been quite a few in recent weeks…) would be incalculable.

But then, even uttering the word "conservation" in a polite tone was stressful for a White House that has shown nothing but contempt for energy efficiency. It is hard to take seriously an administration where the Vice-President once said, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy"!

In now trying to sell the idea of energy conservation to consumers, the government has got it totally wrong, according to a prominent consultant to the car industry, Clotaire Rapaille: "Bush is in big trouble…he makes these fantastic statements about conservation…Americans listen to this and they think, reconstruction - boring. Conservation boring."

"This is a very adolescent culture…You can't tell your adolescent, say no to sex. Of course they're going to do it. You can't tell them don't speed, because they're going to speed. We're not going to stop Americans in their desire for speed and power. But at the same time they don't want to be dependent on a bunch of crazy people around the world for their energy."

Rapaille's proposed answer entails aggressive investment in alternative fuel sources, starting with hydrogen, and aggressive new standards for energy efficiency for everything from cars to household appliances. The idea is to make Americans feel that they can continue to take the "big is beautiful" approach, and not deprive themselves in any way, more or less slipping the energy-efficiency gains past them…

"We can have cars that do 60 miles per gallon. The technology is there…(But) nobody is giving companies any incentive to develop these things," according to Rapaille, who also blames the American car industry: "Toyota and the Japanese are the only ones who can think long term. The problem with the Americans is that they only think as far as next weekend…Detroit is like the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so slow in moving and adapting"!

While there are some exceptions, with cities like LA developing fleets of alternative-energy vehicles, there is little initiative being taken at the level of the federal government e.g. Congress has consistently refused to endorse tougher fuel-efficiency standards because of lobbying pressure from the oil and automotive industries.

Elsewhere, there is fear that America's anti-environmentalist stance is infecting its allies e.g. Mr. Blair appears to have done an amazing volte-face (even by his admittedly elastic standards!) over the issue of climate change.

In recent years, Blair has consistently claimed global leadership in tackling what he described as "long term, the single most important issue we face as a global community", stressing that it "can only properly be addressed through international agreements". Indeed, one of his main achievements on global warming was his success in getting all the leaders - except Mr Bush - to sign up to negotiating a successor to the Kyoto treaty at the last G8 summit.

Yet accompanying the US Secretary of State recently, Blair said, "Probably I'm changing my thinking about this", putting his faith in "developing science and technology" - precisely Mr Bush's position! He even added that he hoped the world's nations would "not negotiate are international treaties"…

He seems unperturbed that this directly contradicts his assertion a year ago, that "a problem that is global in cause and scope can only be fully addressed through international agreement". It is well-known that that particular speech drew a private rebuke from the Bush administration, and that President Bush has repeatedly expressed anger at Mr. Blair's position on the climate change issue.

The U-turn will inevitably bring accusations that he has, yet again, sold out to Mr Bush - that too when Bush himself is backtracking on his past (anti)-environmental policy! Blair justified his change of heart by saying that countries would not negotiate environmental treaties that cut their growth or consumption -- another Bush mantra.

As one environmentalist brilliantly and bitterly put it: "Having failed to practise what he preaches, he is now changing his preaching to match his practice."

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