Dick Cheney has a point

Nicholas Kristof writes about reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

Dick Cheney once scoffed that energy conservation can be a “personal virtue” but is no basis for an energy policy. Growing evidence suggests he had it exactly wrong…the low-hanging fruit on the energy front is curbing demand — meaning more energy conservation. And it’s appalling that our government isn’t leading us on that.”

Grist agrees, calling this premise “the baseline understanding that separates those with a clue about climate change from those without one: efficiency is the gimme, the biggest, fastest, cheapest step forward.”

We agree too, but there’s a bit more to this story. Notice that Nicholas Kristof refers somewhat generically to “conservation,” whereas Grist specifically focuses on “efficiency.” Although the two terms are often used synonymously, there is a useful distinction to be made that, unfortunately, seems lost even on many who regard climate change as an urgent issue.

Efficiency is the better term in this case. Efficiency implies getting more bang from the same energy buck. To take a trivial example, when you swap an incandescent light bulb for a compact fluorescent, you’re not really giving anything up. Your house is still lit up. The light is just as bright. And you’re saving so much in energy use that the swap is like finding a $10 bill in the street. Efficiency is magical that way, and we are foolish not to take advantage of these freebies on a massive scale as quickly as possible.

Conservation — using less energy — encompasses efficiency, but also includes simply cutting out energy-intensive activities. Many conservation measures are laudable and effective, but they aren’t the magical freebies that efficiency measures are.

The distinction is important both rhetorically and from a policy perspective. Rhetorically, the distinction matters because much opposition to action on climate change stems from a mistaken notion that reducing greenhouse gases is necessarily expensive, coupled with a suspicion that environmentalists are eager to take away people’s toys. Emphasizing the easy wins helps to defuse these objections.

And from a policy perspective, the appeal of nearly costless, short-term emissions reductions can hardly be overstated.

Unfortunately, the casting of climate change as a moral issue can have a somewhat perverse effect in this case, because the language of morality discredits easy wins. Who wants to take the cheap way out of an ethical obligation? Climate change does present a moral obligation, but that obligation is to implement the quickest, most affordable greenhouse gas reductions commensurate to the task of mitigating global warming, not to ensure that we all undergo personal sacrifice.

If we generously assume (OK, pretend) that Dick Cheney was making a subtle point about the difference between doing more with less vs. just doing less, then his formulation seems roughly right: efficiency gains should be a pillar of our energy policy. Personal conservation is an ethical choice.

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  1. Patrice Painchaud - August 29, 2007

    Your logic is childish. Once you find that “$10 bill in the street”, you don’t seem to think what happens next (…). You don’t put it in a cave forever; you expense it!
    Whatever you’ll buy with it, that thing will contain a fossil fuel part (whether it’s coal energy required to build it, light up your office or oil to transport it or just a plain load of gas in your car).
    EVERY circulating dollar indirectly ends up in the burning of fossil fuel. Therefore we have to control oil and coal companies to limit their outpour. This will give a chance to cleaner techs to rise. The “invisible” crooks are coal & oil companies and Cheney is part of them.
    With the always expanding population, even in USA (see breathingearth dot net !!!), it’s easy for those bastards to cancel your efforts. The ONLY important thing in the end is how much coal and oil is digged and burned each year (for us, not THEM!). Greenhouse gasses stay up for 500 years and we already have too much so wake up and get coal & oil productions limited with regulations to safer levels (just like fisheries get limited).

  2. Alex - August 29, 2007

    I would like to remind Patrice about the “dinner party” rules. I do not always agree with Adam, but I do not think that your rebuttal of his argument is strengthened by calling his logic “childish”. Personally, I fail to see how saving $10 on energy costs guarantees that I will spend the $10 elsewhere. Even if the money were spent, it could be used to purchase a TerraPass, or a tree, or a number of other things that would be beneficial to the global climate.
    Additionally, simply limiting the supply of energy is an overly simplified solution. Many people can barely afford to heat their homes in the winter at current energy prices, and even children know that prices increase when supply drops and demand remains fixed. Do not underestimate the power of the consumer to effect change in the marketplace!
    Conversely, it would be nice to hear more suggestions for increasing efficiency in our own lives beyond replacing incandescent bulbs.

  3. Tom Arnold - August 29, 2007

    Patrice:
    The effect you are referring to is often called the “rebound effect”. Energy economists have been studying it for quite some time, and it is true that some of the savings leads to an increase in energy consumption.
    However, that increase is typically shown to be minor by these studies, especially as a percentage of total energy use.
    In short, energy efficiency works.

  4. Karen Theisen - August 29, 2007

    It’s unclear to me how efficiency alone can solve the monumental problem of global warming. Yes, it’s a critical and compelling factor in the equation but without conservation, it seems like it will only be a partial solution. Especially when considering that, on average, a US citizen uses 25% more energy than other inhabitants of our planet. Given this figure, and the major impact we are having on global warming, we Americans will need to cut back on our energy consumption through more radical methods than energy efficiency alone. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way around it. Of course, it’s not something that anybody wants to hear but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said — over and over and over again. The reality is that conservation is not such a sacrifice, it’s more a matter of changing habits. The more we expect this of each other, and set the example ourselves, the more it will happen.

    Here’s an obvious example: driving a hybrid is more energy efficient than driving a non-hybrid. However, taking public transportation or biking eliminates the carbon all together. The latter will go much farther towards reducing global warming especially when adopted on a large scale.

  5. Les Brinsfield - August 29, 2007

    Had America improved gas mileage 1 miserable mpg per year since 1950 we would be at about 75 mpg in the aggregate. A tank full would last me a month [instead of a week].

    I agree with Cheney, my mpg and light bulb program makes little difference. Multiplied by 300,000,000 people at home and work, it becomes very significant. Imagine no need for 3 out of 4 filling stations.

  6. Peter Lynch - August 29, 2007

    Great points. Amory Lovins has been preaching this since 1974. Excellent site to find out more in details – http://www.rmi.org

  7. Patrick - August 29, 2007

    The biggest plus to efficiency is that it paves the way to conservation by helping us understand that it’s possible. According to Amory Lovins in his presentation “Winning the Oil Endgame” (http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/346/), the US could get almost, if not completely off of foreign oil by 2040 just by improving efficiencies in our current lives and using current technology, particularly in transporation. He argues that efficiency is one element that has been missing from American capitalism which should have always been there. We have oligopolies (oil, auto, coal, etc.) which command such a market share that efficiency is encouraged in order to continue feeding them.

    The overriding point here is that once we learn the value of efficiency (especially once we see how much money everyone from manufacturer to consumer saves in doing so), we enjoy it and look for ways to save more. After a point, it becomes easy to take steps toward conservation, not just efficiency.

    As an example: In our household, we started off by replacing all of our lightbulbs (efficiency), which helped build the momentum to lower our water heater temperature (efficiency), then take fewer showers (conservation), then put major clusters of appliances on power strips and turn them completely off when not in use (conservation), then buy local produce over stuff that has been shipped thousands of miles (efficiency/conservation), etc., etc.

    You can get very far by taking one step at a time. Proposing conservation measures from the start often meets resistance because it seems like too drastic a lifestyle change.

  8. Patrick - August 29, 2007

    Whoops – sorry, the end of the first paragraph should have read “efficiency is DISCOURAGED in order to keep feeding them.”

  9. Elisa - August 30, 2007

    I totally agree with you about starting with efficiency and then wanting to be more conservative. I started by changing lightbulbs and adjusting my hot water heater. Now my energy co’s website tells us exactly how much energy we used for heating, cooling, etc. After seeing this I just want to keep making improvements but along the way I know where I need to conserve and strive to do better each month. I have also recently bought a Prius. It’s like trying to lose weight. Once you start seeing results you continue to do better and it makes you feel good.

  10. Patrice Painchaud - August 30, 2007

    Hello Alex,
    I’m sorry for breaking dinner party rules.
    I want to assure you that every 10$ saved somewhere are reused somewhere else. It’s simple: people don’t bury their money in the ground for more than 40 years. If it’s not you, your heir will use it. The only way your extra money can make a diffeerence is by giving it to a lobby that promotes the progressive (or sudden) ban of oil and coal. At least, give it to the lobby that promotes the stock carbon market/Kyoto protocol (which end goal is to bring the coal and oil to a higher price than solar power or other clean energies).
    If there is no restrictions on the digging of coal and oil, those vendors will find a way to sell as much as before (human nature is always eager for more power and they’ll exploit that). Look back at the last 15 years. Despite cars and appliances that are much more efficient, etc etc, the oil and coal companies still manage to augment their sales! How do you explain that? (The answer is: your buying power has augmented through efficiency/conservation and the world population is growing). Even when you buy a tree, it comes to your door in a diesel truck!! A tree is a carbon sequestrator for a limited time only (so it’s a carbon neutral thing), not a carbon eliminator. Indeed, when a tree decomposes, it releases the CO2 in the atmosphere (not in the ground).
    Despite all of that, I must admit I own a TerraPass as a temporary solution.

  11. Anonymous - August 30, 2007

    Hello Tom,
    Ref.: “…some of the savings leads to an increase in energy consumption….”
    You’re surely right talking about direct energy consumption but we must account ALL consumption (because buying ANY goods implies that it took some energy to build it and/or transport it).
    The ONLY thing we should care about is look at the raw numbers and see how much oil barrels and coal nuggets have been burned. How much more oil and coal do you think we can afford to burn before it’s too late? (because I hope you’re aware that every ton of CO2 puffed in the sky will stick there for 500 years).

  12. Patrice Painchaud - August 30, 2007

    (Comment 11 was also me).
    If you want to make a difference, the very least that must be done is to calculate the general progress of efficiency and conservation and ban an equivalent amount of fossil fuels from entering the market (for burning purposes).
    So I kind of agree with you: implemented with bans/limitations on fossil fuels, efficiency is the key!
    Otherwise, the aletrnative solution would be to stabilize world’s population (even USA’s population is growing fast…) and improve efficiency. If you want to see who has work to do, go visit a superb visualization at breathingearth dot net

  13. Nybot - August 30, 2007

    I hate to ever agree with Cheney and I am not about to break with tradition here.

    Most people assume that the tree huggers want us to give up our cars, lights, tumble driers and air travel (to name but a few). Some certainly do and even if you think people should do less (rather than do the same using less), most would agree that this is a losing proposition. Most won’t give up the freedoms and luxuries afforded by our modern conveniences and I am one of them.

    However, I and more like me are demanding that my luxuries be more efficient. When I replaced my washing machine I bought a European style front loader – yes it cost me a little more, but it actually cleans our clothes better and more gently and cut my families water use by a THIRD!

    Similarly I can’t wait for the excellent diesel powered cars to arrive in the US. I have driven them in Europe on numerous occasions and the performance is excellent while fuel use is frugal – imagine a Toyota Rav4 that is quicker and has more torque but which gets 39mpg (US gallons), well it exists in Europe and reading the specs on it, polutes less that the equivalent gasoline fueled model.

    These technological advances excite me and will allow me to continue a similar lifestyle, but use less. That is what will win over most people… meanwhile the movement sensors I have put in my house to turn lights on when people are around and turn them off because my children won’t is how I mitigate for those who will never care (Cheney) regardless of what you do!

  14. Chad - August 31, 2007

    Nybot: The problem with switching to deisel is that gasoline and deisel come from the same source (crude oil) in essentially a fixed ratio. When you switch to deisel, you drive up the deisel price and drive the price of gasoline down to the extent that one person, somewhere, makes the opposite switch that you did. It basically has to cancel out in the grand scheme of things.

  15. Al - August 31, 2007

    People go into business to meet a perceived demand and make some money in the process. Evil begins when the business gets large enough to affect government policy that will artificially reduce its costs and increase demand for its product. Cheney and his oil industry clients have used the political power of big oil to reduce taxes and other costs to the oil companies, which increases consumption. Worse, they are using American armed forces to steal another countries resources to enrich themselves. Little or no Iraq oil will flow to American consumers, although the fungible aspects of oil will reduce price to everyone, while making huge profits for Big Oil.
    The only way to reduce consumption is to raise the cost of consumption. There should be a large surtax on all fossil fuel use. Those who bewail the effect on the poor should remember that our ancestors of only a little over 100 years ago got by with little or no fossil fuel use, and lived in unheated houses. Those who use vast amounts of fuel to drive long commutes will then make the trade off in housing costs vs commuting costs.
    BTW, despite popular belief, public transportation uses lots of fossil fuel in the forms of coal and natural gas to produce electricity. Two people in a hybrid are easily more fuel efficient than any light rail or other form of public transportation. In the next decade computer controlled cars will make cars much more efficient and increase the highway capacity tremendously. The interface problems of public transportation are insurmountable.
    Efficiency will work for a while for us rich folks, but population pressure will end the good times for all of us.

  16. Patrice Painchaud - September 4, 2007

    Well said Al!!
    Sweden and Iceland are respectively aiming to be fossil fuel free by 2020 and 2050.
    Like you said, as soon as oil gets much more taxed (and those taxes used to subsidize clean technologies), the clean technologies will take the relay and they will boost our economy as long as we can have a stabilized population (someday?).

  17. Justin - September 5, 2007

    I don’t know what point Cheney was making when he said that, but I agree with this small piece of his argument (Probably for the opposite reason): You can’t substitute personal do-gooderism for sensible policy.
    I take that to mean that our voluntary efforts must eventually be matched by legislation. We can gain ground through efficiency if it’s cost-effective for the individual, but conservation is painful and will need to be legislated. Similarly, some efficiencies don’t become cost-effective until legislation gives them an edge.

  18. Adam Stein - September 5, 2007

    Chiming in here after a short vacation…
    Lots of good comments here. One thing I want to stress a bit further. People have correctly pointed out that efficiency alone won’t get us to 80% reductions. This is true. But the missing piece isn’t conservation. It’s renewable energy.
    I’m definitely a fan of personal conservation, but I can’t say this enough times: on a global level, the trend lines on energy consumption are all going the wrong way. It doesn’t make sense to ask one billion Chinese and one billion Indians to conserve. They already use a very small amount of energy per capita, and they deserve the quality of life benefits that come from greater energy consumption.
    Efficiency plus renewables. That’s the ticket. Incidentally, this is exactly the path that Sweden is following, so it applies just as well to the developed world.
    P.S. I do hope people realize that the whole Dick Cheney thing was just a cutesy way of framing the efficiency vs. conservation issue, not an actual endorsement of our present energy policy. I’m a sucker for the cheap hook.

  19. Patrice Painchaud - September 9, 2007

    Trying to stop CO2 by developing renewable energies while allowing fossil fuel to be sold is like trying to build a castle of cards with windows wide open.
    We live in a growing population with insatiable and ever growing needs. You can have as much renewable energy as you wish but if you still allow the sales of fossil fuels, there will always be plenty buyers for this blackness (we have enough coal for 500 years!).
    To stop CO2, you FIRST must have a world legislation that will ban fossil fuels at some point (like proposed by George Monbiot). Right after that, you will have the perfect conditions for everything else.
    Later, you address the world’s overpopulation :)
    P.S.: I like Adam and Justin’s comments!

  20. Laura - September 11, 2007

    Hi all.
    The idea of a fossil fuel ban is bold indeed, but not beyond reason. Are you aware of the Ecuadorian proposal to refrain from drilling for crude in one of the country’s oil-rich Amazonian parks? You can find information about the plan at http://www.sosyasuni.org/. Go ahead, take a look and let us know what you think! While the translation from Spanish comes across a bit odd, you’ll gather the gist of it: Ecuador wants the world community to support it, financially, in its quest to leave some of its untapped reserves just so–untapped–in a small area of a remaining patch of intact rainforest.
    http://www.sosyasuni.org/
    Are these but wild dreams?

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