Man Without Qualities

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Latest Emissions from the Goreocosm

Al Gore's toxic emissions on the New York Times Op-Ed pages today do not trouble themselves with any modest thing. Mr. Gore fumes:

“Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the environmental and energy policies of our government are completely dominated by a group of current and former oil and chemical company executives who are trying to dismantle America's ability to force them to reduce the extremely dangerous levels of pollution in the earth's atmosphere.”

As often so, Mr. Gore’s perspective is so august that it is only in the cosmological that concepts are found which seem sufficiently capacious to address his concerns. It is well known that observing the Universal Background Radiation and other ancient lights allows one to look back in time to the formation of the Universe. The former vice president’s writings also seem to emanate from a political quadrant formed long ago, before even his 1992 book “Earth in the Balance.” Indeed his writing has the nostalgic quality of a 1970’s revival, expressing views perhaps unchanged since his herbal days. His Op-Ed views that pollution is attributable the acts of “sabotage” by ”current and former oil and chemical company executives” are downright Manichean: the Republican/Industry demons are doing this – he implies - we of the light must strike back!

In contrast to Mr. Gore’s Manichean evangelism, it is worth considering what is perhaps the major single source of air pollution in the United States today: cars owned by people of modest means.

A Reason Magazine article states something that is fairly well known: “Automobiles in general now account for as much as half of total air-pollution emissions in many U.S. cities. But these aggregate figures obscure a critical detail. Only a fraction of cars-- around 10 percent--account for more than half of all vehicle emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.”

Who owns those cars in the critical 10 per cent and why does Mr. Gore not call for measures against the owners “to force them to reduce the extremely dangerous levels of pollution in the earth's atmosphere?”

Well, the city of Los Angeles evaluated car ownership and found that 32 percent of those driving gross polluters had family incomes of less than $10,000 per year. It’s not just old cars that are the “gross polluters,” though old cars are disproportionately represented in that group. And new cars typically are driven more than old ones. Pollution comes from both emissions and miles driven, so targeting old cars alone won't suffice.

But the biggest reason cars (even new cars owned by prosperous people) aren’t all effectively required to comply with strict air pollution standards all the time is politicians’ concern about the costs such compliance would impose on people of modest means. Simply put, the cost of bringing (and keeping) any car, but especially a grossly polluting car, into emissions compliance is pretty high. As Reason puts it: “The real test of Californians' commitment to cleaner air will come as more and more motorists--especially low-income motorists--find themselves shelling out hundreds of dollars to get repairs, sometimes for cars barely worth the cost of those repairs. Reestablishing repair cost limits and permanent waivers can overcome potential financial distress; such measures also weaken the potential effectiveness of the program.”

It may be the case that the pursuit of clean air is not important enough to impose the costs necessary to obtain it on people of modest means. But the environmental evangelism of Mr. Gore’s Op-Ed piece doesn’t seem to allow for such considerations – after all, Earth IS in the balance! And such economic “cost-benefit” analysis is exactly the kind of thing Mr. Gore and other environmental extremists criticize constantly. Mr. Gore likely refrains from urging such costs be imposed on members of this group quite simply because they are also members of his core constituency.

Mr. Gore is willing to press for measures that impose considerable costs on people of modest means so long as those costs are imposed indirectly through industry. For example, Mr. Gore has not shied from advocating that expensive pollution control devices be installed on cars by their manufacturers, and air pollution restrictions on factories have probably cost the country many jobs which otherwise would have paid modest salaries. But those costs come in such a way that people like Mr. Gore can deflect criticism towards the manufacturer (who actually charges the high price) or the employer (who is moving the jobs off shore). Mr. Gore hides behind these demons, just as he is doing in his Op-Ed piece. But when ordinary people have to actually write a check to pay directly for air pollution regulation compliance, it is harder for people like Mr. Gore who advocate those regulations to hide politically. That seems to be why Mr. Gore's Op-Ed piece does not include any demand that ordinary people of modest means be made to write those checks, lots of those checks, and keep their cars clean. And it doesn't matter if such people as a group are the worst source of air pollution.

Mr. Gore may be forgiven his measure of realpolitik. But the combination of such realpolitik with the sanctimony of today’s Op-Ed piece makes for a mighty distasteful effect.

Now the Man Without Qualities entertains a certain general skepticism of Mr. Gore’s environmental thinking. Indeed, it is the view here that one would have to forgive anybody undertaking simultaneous reads of “Earth in the Balance” and Bjorn Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist” a certain nagging sensation that a man coming within a few Floridian votes of the Presidency, just perhaps, rather dangerously confabulates on environmental topics. (Sample Gore: We have assumed “there would always be a hole wide enough and deep enough to take care of all of our trash. But like so many other assumptions … this one too was wrong.” Sample Lomborg response: “All American waste of the entire twenty-first century will fit into a single landfill, using … less than half a percent [of Oklahoma].”)

The most troubling aspect of today Op-Ed emission from the Goreocosm is its adoption of the extreme, polarized tone and tenor of “Earth in the Balance” – which lays to rest any notion that the 1992 book was a product of untutored high spirits. Mr. Gore's eight years in the second highest office in the land appear to have matured his judgment not at all.

Comments: Post a Comment