Kyoto? Bali? They’re miles from here

By Carol Sarler (THE TIMES, 19/12/07):

If you were to judge from the shrill triumphalism in Bali at the weekend, you would assume that international consensus has been reached and that it goes something like this: through blood, sweat, tears and boos at the UN climate change conference, 186 countries isolated the mighty US and bludgeoned it to agree to a blueprint for action — so all we need now is for the incumbent oaf to be replaced by a spanking new, climatically aware president, and ecological wisdom shall prevail.

If you were to judge from inside the recalcitrant nation, however — and not from the cosmopolitan squats of Washington, New York or California, but from my part-time home in suburban Georgia, representative of what you might properly call most of the US — the view is very different.

From here, the greening of America looks to be a Herculean task; from here, nobody could sensibly predict an iota of meaningful change, given the absence of essential will and infrastructure.

For change to happen, you need both. Matthew Parris argued forcefully on Saturday that good intentions with a tendency to slouch can be butt-kicked by government initiatives “to make it worth people’s while” — as, to an extent, in the UK they already are. You can, for instance, at least try to reduce noxious fumes in cities by congestion charging until drivers flee to the financial sanctuary of bus or train. But here, in Smalltown USA, you cannot even try. There is no public transport. And I do mean none.

Our busy little port city of Brunswick, including its suburbs and neighbouring islands, holds about 50,000 people. Yet there are no buses; the nearest town that has even a rudimentary bus service is 100 miles away. Our phonebook boasts eight taxis, each a one-man operation. Our nearest station is 40 miles away, and the infrequent trains go nowhere useful. The Amtrak route map is astounding, not for where it goes but for where it does not; the once-great American railroad, the single thing to which many historians attribute the very notion of a “United” States, has been systematically destroyed beyond repair.

The time and cost of starting from scratch is incalculable — and in any case, where would you find the will to do so, among millions of adults who have never once used a bus or a train and whose only experience of public transport is aircraft? Children are driven until the moment they may drive themselves; their chosen vehicle is the SUV. A 16-year-old girl neighbour had six friends around last week, which meant a line of seven small buses: one Lolita per eight seats. Another neighbour bought a Toyota Prius, which elicited much admiration. Not for its green credentials, mind, but for its low mpg rate so she can afford the gas to drive, yes, more!

Next week the county will pick up our used Christmas trees — but only for cosmetic decluttering. Such limited recycling as there is has a longer list of what will not be taken than what will; there are no bottle banks and if you want to drive your recyclables to an environmentally conscious tip, you will pay to enter it. The place, as you can imagine, is not humming. Supermarkets make British packaging look skimpy, while checkout packers routinely stick just one or two items into each plastic carrier bag.

Oddly, but truthfully, the guilty are neither stupid nor instinctively thuggish. I think of one friend who, in British green circles, would be assumed to be on the side of the angels: a lawyer who works pro bono for poor workers, who is a pro-choice, Bush-hating Democrat, who would certainly have read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the Sixties, who admires Al Gore’s eco-war — and who nevertheless heats his pool all winter till steam rises. Heck, he can afford it; who says the Earth can’t? In fairness to him, who indeed? British media browbeat us to extremes: nonsense like last weekend’s calculation of the carbon footprint of a Christmas dinner (the worst culprit is apparently cranberry sauce) is enough to taunt a saint — still, it has engendered a sense of “good” and “bad” such that when we behave “badly” at least we know it. American media are far less interested; in fact, had I not laptop BBC, I doubt that I would know of the Bali conference, so low-key was its reporting here.

The result is a mass of Middle Americans with a sense of distant otherness: something is wrong but it’s nothing to do with them; they’re jolly sorry for polar bears but what has that to do with the SUV?

Meanwhile, I notice that our birds are missing. In winter, the blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers and countless cousins leave their inland feeding grounds when the bugs die off and join us on the more bounteous coast. An absurdly warm December, however, has kept the inland bugs alive and the birds away. A good friend, puzzled by my concern, asks: “So? So they’re not eating our bugs. And…?”

In the face of such lack of awareness or unease, it is hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the US delegations that so dismally dragged their feet, first in Kyoto and then, to jeers, in Bali. Parris’s case for governmental fists clunking down on energy and emissions in the UK is bolstered by his plausible assertion that our citizens would react with relief; in the US, a country that in so many other areas prides itself on being ahead of the game, that’s a fat chance.

Nor, I venture, will a change of government make enough difference. It is a quirk of the wider American psyche that if you do something one way for long enough, then, regardless of fact or statistic, it becomes a “right” to continue — think of an obvious example, gun control — with which no politician would dare interfere. No doubt this is why none of those tussling for presidential nomination is making the environment the central plank of their bid, let alone laying down finite figures. For them, as for their sorry delegates in Bali, it’s a tricky business making promises that you haven’t the foggiest how to keep.