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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Oil prices 'drive US action on climate'

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

Traffic jam, AP
Americans still have a love affair with cars
The environment itself is not the burning issue at the White House - but the price of gas is.

The pressure on the US president to do something on global warming along the lines sought by other world leaders comes not from traditional green activists, but from rising oil prices.

Every increase causes a flutter of concern among drivers on supermarket forecourts, where the larger bill for filling a tank means less money to spend on consumer goods - so threatening to put a brake on general economic growth.

And that causes more than a flutter of concern in Detroit where the two big American car-makers, General Motors and Ford, are losing market share to Japanese makers of cleaner cars.

So Mr Bush is proposing a raft of proposals in an energy bill which "will help us make better use of the energy supplies we now have, and will make our supply of energy more affordable and more secure for the future".

Concerns and solutions

Some of the proposals might please traditional environmental activists and some might appal them.

Mr Bush has indicated, for example, that he might not be against tax incentives to promote the manufacture and sale of cleaner cars that don't burn the gasoline, which many scientists believe causes global warming.

That would please the green lobby. The flip side, though, is that other measures that Mr Bush proposes would run counter to the demands of campaigners.

Mr Bush is sympathetic, for example, to the oil companies which want more refining capacity and that might mean laxer pollution regulation. He also wants to open oil reserves in the Alaskan wilderness.

So there is a complex mix of concerns with a complex mix of solutions, some of which might harm the environment.

To an outsider, the argument on the environment in America doesn't seem as focused as it does in other parts of the world.

In parts of Europe, for example, insurance premiums have risen on property on flood plains, offering house owners a direct connection between their wallets and the weather.

In America, on the other hand, space seems abundant and extremes of nature in a country that has the scale of a continent seem normal.

Misguided greens

There's no doubt the environment is going up the agenda but it's often as a vague concern rather than as a precise engagement with specific science.

Organic food, for example, is more popular than it was five years ago but with no real knowledge of whether it's better for the environment - it's really part of a consumer movement rather than an environmental one.

In the trendier supermarkets, the check-out staff ask you what sort of bag you want: "Paper or plastic?" Some green shops offer pens made of wood rather than plastic.

It's not clear which is friendlier to the Earth and the suspicion is that a vague feeling of doing good is being addressed rather than an informed judgement.

Organic pumpkins, BBC
Organic food in the US is growing in popularity
If American popular concern is less focused, American attitudes to policy are less dogmatic.

Republicans are mistrustful of big statements made by politicians on the environment and mistrustful of big treaties which might not deliver very much improvement - so they are coming up with ingenious ideas that might actually work.

In Chicago, for example, there is a market in pollution where companies can buy and sell the right to pollute from each other, giving them a monetary incentive to reduce emissions.

Each company has a bench-mark of pollution - if it exceeds the mark, it pays a penalty; if it pollutes less, it can sell its savings to another company.

California is as tough as any country on cleaning up cars and is advanced in promoting non-gasoline vehicles.

The view of the Right in America is that there are compelling reasons to cut consumption of oil - it's a product that comes from politically volatile, often hostile countries.

The market may push Americans towards cleaner technology; shouting by green activists and politicians won't.


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