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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 July 2005, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Why the US could turn green

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

The US administration has long opposed a Kyoto-style deal on climate change which would force the country to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. But economic factors could end up driving the country towards greener policies.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley straddles the borders of Utah and Arizona
I have just driven down from Salt Lake City, through the desert of Utah and Nevada.

It is a magnificent sublime wilderness where horizons are wide when they are not broken by the craggy splendour of an ancient volcanic landscape.

As the sun sinks here, the rocks glow red and it is hard to imagine a threat to the environment where space seems limitless.

And yet, many of these escarpments hide sites where humans dispose of all sorts of waste.

Just beyond the beauty is a land being violated. This is where America throws its trash over the back wall.

I have just been to Yucca Mountain in Nevada where tunnels are being dug deep inside to bury spent nuclear fuel. Engineers tell me it will be there for 10,000 years.

Around here there are dumps for every toxic waste. Dumps that feature on maps but not in the public consciousness.

The city of Salt Lake has a big rubbish dump in Skull Valley.

But none of this is evident. Where people on other continents feel the pressure of the crowd, Americans take in what seems deceptively like limitless, virgin territory.

It is also a country, a continent, of extreme climates.

This land freezes in winter and is scorching now - even with snow on the peaks around. That, too affects the American perception of climate change.

'Natural' extremes

In Europe, insurance premiums rise as homes get built on flood plains by people in a search for every inch of exploitable space.


In America, there is not this connection between wallets and weather. Extremes of climate seem natural.

Only on the crowded coasts is the environment an issue. California and New York have tough regulations.

In between, they often cannot see what the fuss is about.

"It's a big country," a taxi driver in Texas tell me. His view that global warming is hokum is not a lone voice. Some of the big oil companies that lobby Mr Bush are also loath to concede a link between their product and climate change.

And even where there is concern, it can seem unfocused.

I went to a shop in Santa Fe in New Mexico. It was a trendy shop for concerned people, where there was a lot of Hessian and earthenware pots and posters with slogans about the earth.

There, they sold wooden pens - ballpoint pens but with a casing made of wood.

I asked the woman behind the counter why on earth they sold wooden pens.

She replied as though I was a bit stupid - wood was more natural - as though that somehow meant it was kinder on the world's resources.

And at some of the fancier supermarkets, now in trendy areas, the checkout person asks what kind of bag you want: "Paper or plastic?"

I usually ask which one is better for the environment, to which the reply is invariably: "I don't know".

The environment sometimes seems like the fashionable issue of the moment, the right badge to wear, the current political designer label.

A hostage to oil

Things are changing though. Some Christians argue that gas-guzzling cars are a waste of the bountiful creation of their and the President's God.

And neo-conservatives are worried that importing oil means relying on hostile regimes, which moreover, might funnel some of the dollars to anti-American causes. The is what the neo-cons call a "terrorism tax on the American people".

GM's Hummer sports utility vehicle
Thirsty cars are less popular when fuel prices are sky-high

The former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, for example, drives a Toyota Prius, a hybrid car powered partly by a battery and partly by an internal combustion engine.

That means it burns less gasoline and emits less of the smoke that many scientists believe cause global warming.

Mr Woolsey, no tree-hugging liberal he, drives this cleaner car for what he calls "national security reasons".

Further from the chattering elites in Washington, concern about the environment usually translates as concern about the price of fuel.

The last time I was in the Six Pack Diner in Detroit, the car-workers guzzling their cholesterol were not opining about the melting polar ice-caps.

They are worried though, that their employers, Ford and General Motors, have failed to catch a new appetite for cars that consume less.

More clean Japanese cars means fewer jobs in Detroit.

So there is pressure on Mr Bush over the environment but not as a grand cause.

It is a concern rather about importing an expensive fuel from hostile places.

And Mr Bush may respond with tax incentives for cleaner technology that the US market seems increasingly to want.

Not so spectacular, of course, as grand declarations of global good intent but maybe effective nonetheless.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 July, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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