Columns » Ernest Dumas

The greening of Europe

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Viernheim, Germany — Whether he is in an ancient half-timbered hostelry in Alsace or a modern lakeshore hotel in Italy an American vacationer steps out of his room into darkness, which is instantly chased away by motion lights. Darkness returns the moment he enters the elevator or the darkened stairwell.

It is one of the innumerable reminders of the European obsession with saving energy and the environment, so much in contrast with home. On the hillsides of Lorraine, Burgundy and Champagne windmills are popping up above the vineyards as the French try to catch up with Germany, Denmark and Spain in the conversion to wind power. The cumulative wind power production in European Union countries increased 19 percent last year alone as more countries oblige the EU's renewable energy directive, adopted in 2001, about the time that President Bush was repudiating the Kyoto accords on global warming.

The obsession is most evident, of course, on the roads, whether the autobahn or the cobblestone streets of medieval villages, where compact and energy-efficient cars and trucks make an oddity of the rare guzzler. Carmakers compete to produce the most efficient vehicles. Every year there is a race to find the most fuel-efficient vehicle. Last year the winner got nearly 2,500 miles on a liter (slightly less than a quart) of fuel. The European Union's Green Paper on energy calls for a reduction of 20 percent in energy use by 2020.

Government policy is mirrored in the culture.

The green consciousness, of course, may not be altogether altruistic. Energy costs a lot more in Europe than in the United States, the result both of the market and high fuel taxes, and homeowners and businesses, including every chateau and bed and breakfast, are keenly interested in raising mileage and saving kilowatts wherever they can.

Whatever the motive, Europeans bought into the crusade against global warming and energy waste.

It is one reason that Europeans hold George W. Bush in low regard — and Americans to a lesser extent, because they almost elected him and then re-elected him. “How could you choose Bush over Al Gore?” is still a common query to American visitors, although continental dwellers are more reserved than the Irish or Scots, who will bring up politics if they overhear Yanks at the next table.

So it was that Europeans cheered Gore's selection last week to share the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change. In some sense the prize was, to use Donald Rumsfeld's contemptuous phrase, Old Europe's rejoinder to Bush for many grievances from Kyoto to Iraq. The chair of the prize committee denied that the prize was intended to be a rebuke to Bush, explaining “a peace prize is never a criticism of anything,” but it is hard to miss. Five years ago, the prize went to former President Jimmy Carter, though not ostensibly for his criticism of the Bush administration. Two years ago, it was awarded to Mohammed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who had repudiated the Bush administration's claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Gore would be the popular European candidate for U. S. president, everywhere except maybe the Czech Republic, whose president shares Bush's contempt for the climate-change crusade. He thought giving Gore the prize was a nutty idea because sane people knew that humans were not the cause of climate change.

But the sterner rebuke of Bush and the American Right is the popularization of energy and environmental conservation in a mature culture that is just as accustomed to luxury as Americans. The assumption is that the American people and business would not stand for the strictures of a rigorous conservation policy that drove down energy demand and curtailed the production of greenhouse gases from cars and the smokestacks of electricity plants. In Europe, if the government figures can be believed, the conversion to renewable energy generation is actually creating jobs, not eliminating them. Tell that to Bush or any of his party's candidates to succeed him.

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