Guest column: Doing well and good

By acting together, Americans could greatly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and slow the rising of the seas, writes Jerry Brady.

This week I went to Home Depot in search of showerheads. “Which ones are the most efficient,” I asked? “They all are. It’s a uniform national standard,” the clerk answered.

Another more momentous message also reached me this week: Antarctica is melting so fast scientists say it is a matter of time before the oceans of the world rise by four feet. Miami will be under water. New York City will live behind a sea wall. On islands and in places such as Bangladesh, hundreds of millions of people will lose their homes and livelihoods. It’s not a question of whether this will happen, but when.

So, is there any relationship between my showerheads and a global threat that would seem utterly beyond anything we can do?

Together Americans could reduce the amount of energy we use by 25 percent in 16 years, based on a new study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Here’s how:

n Increase the efficiency of the five appliances most commonly used in our homes. You’ve already seen efficiency ratings on refrigerators, for example. A few years back, Idaho Falls Power helped pay for a heater and a new water heater, saving me money and helping the utility avoid building a new power plant. Like my showerheads - which will cut my shower-water consumption by 80 percent - improved technology now makes greater savings possible and relatively painless for all parties.

n Update building codes. Houses and commercial buildings waste energy at prodigious rates; however, uniform standards would reduce the competitive advantage of builders building without regard to long-term costs.

n Ask each state to reduce energy by 1.5 percent per year. Electricity use in the Pacific Northwest has been declining steadily on a per-capita basis and it would be relatively simple for public utility commissions to continue rewarding utilities for saving rather than generating electricity.

n Construct heat and power plants together more frequently. Called co-generation, the technology is already well known and has been saving energy for years.

Taken together, these actions would save 600 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 925 million megawatt-hours of electricity and avoid the need for 494 power plants by 2030. Even better - as noted by Idaho Statesman columnist Rocky Barker last week - these actions would increase the gross domestic product by $17 billion and create 611,000 U. S. jobs by 2030.

When seeking a new showerhead this week, I had already suffered a loss of freedom. Congress approved the slow phase-out of water-wasting nozzles. In another aisle at Home Depot, I had already lost the option of buying inefficient but cheap light bulbs. I can only buy bulbs which, again, would cut my lighting expense by about 80 percent over time.

And while I still have the freedom to buy a gas-guzzling car or pickup, my choices are all more efficient than before Congress overcame decades of resistance from Detroit and mandated higher fuel standards. In truth, I have lost some freedom in the last 20 years. Was it worth it? I’ve saved thousands of dollars by driving an energy-efficient car and hundreds more on new appliances. This was only possible because Americans did this together. Through our representatives in Congress and the White House, we agreed to limit our choices and improve our long-term economic welfare and health.

If we were to adopt the efficiency standards proposed by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, we would save even more. Would this stop Antarctica from melting? No, but acting with other countries, we could slow the rate of melting by decades if not hundreds of years.

We could deny the science. We could, like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman proclaim, “What, me worry?” Or we could do well and do good at the same time, and care for the least among the world’s people who will inevitably suffer the most from the rising seas.