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4.5.05

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Matt Yglesias is concerned that tactical use of the "independence from foreign oil" argument could backfire on environmentalists:

It's important to keep environmental issues front-and-center because they're deeply implicated in the one policy idea everyone (including me) seems to like: trying to power our cars with hydrogen. Hydrogen is only sort of an alternative to oil. ... You need electricity to make it.

So where does electricity come from? Coal, mostly. But also oil, natural gas, nuclear plants, solar, wind, and hydroelectric dams. There are big differences in terms of the environmental impact of all of these things. Most crucially, replacing gasoline with electricity made from coal would be a giant leap backwards in environmental terms. Liberals need to make sure that our arguments on energy policy don't back us into a corner whereby we wind up being unable to oppose that switch because we've given so much credence to the confused national-security case against oil.


I think environmentalists are already in a position that makes it very hard to oppose a switch to hydrogen cars supplied by coal plants. The very popularity of the hydrogen car idea has created a strong association in the public mind between hydrogen cars and environmental friendliness. If environmentalists oppose a switch to hydrogen cars because of the type of power generation supplying them, we'll look hypocritical. Few members of the public are going to sit and listen to a technical explanation of why in the current context hydrogen cars would lead to more pollution. They'll react with their gut association, so it will look like environmentalists are opposing something good for the environment. It will be like the frequent assertions that environmentalists are hypocritical for opposing nuclear power, which has no emissions. Patient explanations of the problems with nuclear waste disposal don't make much impact, though in this case environmentalists are saved from looking totally foolish by the widespread public association of "nuclear" with "dangerous."

Yet I don't think the switch to hydrogen cars supplied by coal power would be all bad. If our ultimate goal is hydrogen cars supplied by renewable energy, it seems to me that the "hydrogen cars" part is much harder and more time-consuming than the "renewable energy" part. Our system of cars and car-fuel supply is vast and decentralized, and intimately tied up in public perceptions. Power generation, on the other hand, is more centralized and removed from the public. Faced with Yglesias's choice, I would not advocate trying to stall hydrogen cars until non-polluting power generation is in place. Rather, I would let the long shift to hydrogen cars get started, while working on improving the power generation system. Hydrogen cars supplied by coal plants might be more polluting than the status quo, but that system has the infrastructure in place to make an easier switch to hydrogen cars powered by renewable energy.

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