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America: Where the fridges are more intelligent than some of the politicians

The record of Congress on climate change is abysmal

In Houston, of all places, I recently visited a home owned by Reliant, one of the city’s electricity suppliers, which is a show house for how smart technology can slash energy consumption and bills. There are no intelligent beings living in it, just intelligent fridges, washing machines, thermostats and blinds.

I left – at the wheel, incidentally, of the all-electric Nissan Leaf that was parked in the show home’s garage – feeling not a little guilty.

It’s not just that my fridge – unlike the one in the Houston house – doesn’t converse with our electricity company to adjust its chilling temperature in sync with peak and off-peak hours: we don’t have a thermostat of any description. If it gets too hot, we crack open a window.

It is true that New York might offer the worst example of energy waste in America. If Gotham is a car, we are still in model year 1968 when guzzle was good. But my question in Houston was why in the world would a company that produces electricity go to such lengths to help customers buy less of it?

The answer was pretty obvious: because that’s what they want and we’re the company that will help them achieve it.

The key here is self-interest. The small town where I spend most weekends in upstate New York, not exactly an incubator of progressive policies, is eagerly considering a pitch from a German firm to provide it with electricity from solar panels that would be erected on the local landfill. The reason: it would save the town a million dollars over 25 years. That might not sound a lot, but to local taxpayers, it is.

Interest would evaporate, I’m sure, if they heard this: installing the solar panels to power your street lights, fire stations and the hospital would increase taxes on residents a little but it would also help save the planet.

Ask President Barack Obama about this. You would think that if even the aforementioned Houston fridge grasps the threat of global warming, conservative Republicans would too.

But the minute you concede that taking action to combat it will entail some economic sacrifice, they throw their hands and begin wailing.

Mr Obama talks a lot about the kind of planet he wants to leave his children, but hardly anyone is listening.

The record of Congress on climate change is abysmal. A promising bill on energy efficiency offering businesses and home-owners incentives to embrace the kinds of steps advocated by Reliant came within a hair of being passed in April with bipartisan support.

It imploded at the last minute when Republicans attached amendments designed to force Mr Obama to approve the building of the XL pipeline to carry dark crude from Canada to the Gulf and block him from taking action on CO2 emissions from power plants.

This week, Mr Obama moved on CO2 anyway with a plan to oblige those plants to cut emissions by 30 per cent within 15 years, a step that at least will give the US some moral authority in nudging the rest of the world to take similar steps towards the global goal of limiting the warming of the planet to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Naturally, Republicans are squealing. How dare he try to circumvent America’s elected representatives? (Republicans are prone to forget the voters also elected Mr Obama.)

True, the plan, assembled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not quite all shiny. Power-plant emissions are dropping anyway thanks to a slow shift from coal to cheaper natural gas. Yesterday, a European research group, Climate Analytics, said it didn’t go far enough. “Every little step has to be welcomed... but this is not enough to get on a 2C pathway,” Climate Analytics’ Bill Hare told a news conference in Bonn. And there is the risk that the plan will be derailed by Congress or challenges in court.

Let’s assume it survives. State by state, power companies will have options to make the nationwide 30 per cent cut happen. Some will turn to regional cap-and-trade markets, essentially buying permits to pollute from other areas where emissions are already lower.

But also likely to happen is an explosion of pent-up innovation aimed at making power plants less polluting – capturing and storing emission is one possibility – and depressing demand for energy while still keeping homes warm (or cold) and businesses buzzing.

“Even before its release... the ruling unleashed a torrent of conservative outrage, reminding us how difficult it is for leadership to occur at the federal level,” said Jonathan Fink, a professor at Portland State University who serves on that city’s Climate Action Plan steering committee. “Hopefully, EPA’s announcement will launch a wave of new technology and public policy equal to the task of transforming our nation’s cities and companies into laboratories of climate-saving innovation.”

America, the land of Silicon Valley, surely has the brain power to develop those new technologies. But until now, there has not been the financial incentive – it’s that self-interest thing again – to spend the money it will require.

Innovation is expensive. Mr Obama’s plan, if fully implemented, ought finally to change that equation and unlock the necessary cash.

I hope that in a decade from now I will look back on my visit to that suburban house in Houston and think how quaint it actually was – that it had been a glimpse of America’s energy future, but only a glimpse.