Message received

The president’s Earth Day message: ‘No sweat’

On Saturday, my wife and kids were on the grass at California State University, Sacramento, having little Earths painted on their faces, getting cheerful reminders that “every day is Earth Day.”

At the same time, some of my friends were showing their “Worst President Ever” signs to a bunch of Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies in riot gear behind a barricade in a West Sac industrial park.

These are things that I wholeheartedly support, even if I don’t honestly think they do much good.

I spent Earth Day inside the California Fuel Cell Partnership with a bunch of daily reporters and TV folks waiting around for the decider in chief to lay his Earth Day message on all us earthlings.

If you’re not familiar with the partnership, it’s a facility funded by a consortium of automotive, oil and energy companies to showcase promising new fuel-cell vehicles—which run on hydrogen and emit no pollution.

It’s cool stuff, but waiting for Bush, I got bored and started feeling a little out of place among the daily reporters and the Secret Service agents. I recalled that a couple of days before, a credentialed journalist (not unlike myself) had interrupted a presidential press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao, by screaming out condemnations against China’s persecution of Falun Gong, before getting dragged away by security. It occurred to me that I might feel better if I, too, went ahead and flipped out and started yelling in Chinese. But, seeing as the only thing I can actually say in Chinese is “no sweat” (something I picked up from the pot-smoking cook in the film version of The Night of the Iguana), I figured my protest would be cryptic at best.

I didn’t flip out, but I can at least offer these few observations that you probably didn’t see in the mainstream press’s coverage of the event.

“We’ve got a real problem when it comes to oil,” the president told us. “We’re addicted.” Amen to that. But within a couple of minutes of admitting we had a problem, El Jefe was bemoaning the recent spike in gas prices, saying that we ought to loosen environmental regulations to increase refining capacity. (He flat out suspended some of these rules on Tuesday.)

First he says we’re addicted. Then he says it should be cheaper to feed our habit. Do we treat junkies by giving them free dope? Can we cure an alcoholic by pointing him to the nearest happy hour?

“We’re heading for a hydrocarbon economy,” said the prez, before the little voice in his ear corrected him. “From a hydrocarbon economy toward a hydrogen economy.”

He actually had it right the first time. Because the fuel cell will do little, by itself, to get us off fossil fuels or to make much of a dent in greenhouse-gas emissions. The first consumer-ready fuel-cell vehicles won’t be available for at least five to 10 years (which is pretty much what they were saying 10 years ago, too). And most of the commercially available hydrogen in the world is produced from natural gas. What comes out of your tailpipe may be nothing but clean water vapor, but every mile you drive will mean abundant air pollution “upstream.” You can get hydrogen from water—you can use solar or wind power to do it, too. But while the mass production of clean cars is always a decade away, the switch to “clean hydrogen” is further still.

Perhaps the most revealing thing Bush said during his speech was that technology is going to “change our driving habits.”

But the president’s real message seemed to be that we don’t have to change our driving habits one bit. There’s a technological fix just around the corner, so “no sweat.”

There was no mention of climate change. Conservation, public transportation and smart growth all were missing, too.

What the Fuel Cell Partnership is doing is fascinating, important stuff. It’s also not going to do us much in good in the short term. As for the president’s message, it was worth about as much as a bumper sticker telling us that “every day is Earth Day.”