Even Al Gore Can't Bring Attention to the Environment and Recession

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Former Vice President Al Gore testifies on Capitol Hill, in Washington, before the House Energy and Environment subcommittee.

Al Gore was able to get most people to forget the money he took from the tobacco industry and Buddhist monks by winning both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his work on educating the world about the dangers of global warming and other problems that affect the environment.

Gore's problem is that in this economic climate he cannot get himself arrested even for chaining himself to the entrance of a coal-fired electrical plant. The interest in supporting policies that will improve the environment is trumped by the necessity of corporate survival. (See pictures of Al Gore's American life.)

Companies often cannot make capital expenditures to invest in cleaner technologies in a deep and prolonged recession. A firm may save money long-term by converting facilities to solar power, but if they do not have money for the initial financial investment, that will not matter.

Companies are not the only organizations that do not have the money to advance the cause of the environment in an economic downturn. Charities such as Greenpeace or The Sierra Club are probably suffering from a reduction in donations which will decrease their ability to accomplish the goals they have set for themselves.

The Administration is expected to get corporations to focus on the cost of being poor ecological citizens by giving incentives to companies that create and distribute clean energy and penalizing those that do not change their poor environmental habits with cap-and-trade or carbon taxes.

Realistically, trying to improve the environment during a recession is a losing game, even if the North Pole ends up having a climate like Cuba in 10 years. (Read: "The North Pole — of Mars.")

Corporations will not be able to afford many of the expenses involved with being "green." Gore's case for changes in government and corporate behavior that are necessary to prevent increasing environmental damage and that require immediate restrictions on companies that pollute is "if the vast majority of the world's scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced." It is frightening and it is likely to be true, although Gore's theories have detractors.

What Gore will not say and what the Administration will not admit is that keeping companies from being polluters is not a question of levying fines. Very few corporations are polluters because they are out-and-out enemies of clear water, clean air, intact ozone, or of keeping the polar ice cap in place. Companies pollute because it is convenient and saves money. Many corporations would be major polluters if they were certain they would never be caught and if they were free to dump waste they would not change their behavior one iota.

Forty years ago, Lake Erie, one of the largest lakes in the world, was also among the most polluted. Industries in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan dumped waste into the water as fast as was necessary to keep their industrial operations working. Lake Erie reached a point where it could hardly support a population of fish. The companies involved were not being malicious as much as they were being brazenly capitalistic. Some of the CEO's who were the heads of the largest polluters may have even been fishermen. They desire to make money trumped their personal feelings. (Read: "Comeback for the Great Lakes.")

The government's reaction then was to fine companies who broke new anti-pollution laws and, in some cases, give them tax credits for being better environmental citizens. Tax credits do not have much use in a recession when many companies do not pay taxes because they are losing money or do not have the spare cash to modify existing production habits.

In order to change the environmentally dangerous practices of businesses which are under financial stress the government will need to provide the same kind of financial support it is already giving to other industries under the new stimulus program. There is a benefit to getting capital to a company that helps build systems to distribute the energy from wind turbines or change their facilities into locations that use solar power. If the government wants to help companies change businesses so that they pollute less, the fastest way to do it is to invest government money to finance the process. That would save the environment, upgrade current corporate facilities in a way that may make them more profitable, and provide these companies with money that will go toward the purchase of capital goods. In other words, providing money for corporations to upgrade polluting facilities causes large ripple effects to industries that market the materials to create a "green" corporate world. It probably does as much for the environment as building a wind farm does. And, it stimulates capital spending.

Douglas A. McIntyre

See pictures of Al Gore's American life.

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