Simply calling for more innovation is painless. The hard part is calling for anything that smacks of sacrifice — on the part of consumers or special interests, and politicians who depend on their support. After 9/11, the president had the perfect moment to put the nation on the road toward energy independence, when people were prepared to give up their own comforts in the name of a greater good. He passed it by, and he missed another opportunity last night.
Of all the defects in Mr. Bush's energy presentation, the greatest was his unwillingness to address global warming — an energy-related emergency every bit as critical as our reliance on foreign oil. Except for a few academics on retainer at the more backward energy companies, virtually no educated scientist disputes that the earth has grown warmer over the last few decades — largely as a result of increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
The carbon lodged in the atmosphere by the Industrial Revolution over the last 150 years has already taken a toll: disappearing glaciers, a thinning Arctic icecap, dead or dying coral reefs, increasingly violent hurricanes. Even so, given robust political leadership and technological ingenuity, the worst consequences — widespread drought and devastating rises in sea levels —can be averted if society moves quickly to slow and ultimately reverse its output of greenhouse gases. This will require a fair, cost-effective program of carbon controls at home and a good deal of persuasion and technological assistance in countries like China, which is building old-fashioned, carbon-producing coal-fired power plants at a frightening clip.
Mr. Bush said he would look for cleaner ways to power our homes and offices, and provide more money for the Energy Department's search for a "zero emission" coal-fired plant whose carbon dioxide emissions can be injected harmlessly into the ground without adding to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. But once again he chose to substitute long-range research — and a single, government-sponsored research program at that — for the immediate investments that have to be made across the entire industrial sector.
That Mr. Bush has taken a pass on this issue is a negligence from which the globe may never recover. While he seems finally to have signed on to the idea that the earth is warming, and that humans are heavily responsible, he has rejected serious proposals to do anything about it and allowed his advisers on the issue to engage in a calculated program of disinformation. At the recent global summit on warming, his chief spokesmen insisted that the president's program of voluntary reductions by individual companies had resulted in a reduction in emissions, when in fact the reverse was true.
The State of the Union speech is usually a feel-good event, and no one could fault Mr. Bush's call for research, or fail to applaud his call for replacing more than 75 percent of the nation's oil imports from the Middle East within the next two decades. But while the goal was grand, the means were minuscule. The president has never been serious about energy independence. Like so many of our leaders, he is content to acknowledge the problem and then offer up answers that do little to disturb the status quo. If the war on terror must include a war on oil dependence, Mr. Bush is in retreat.