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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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