TCS Daily

The Scarlet Placard

By Sallie Baliunas - February 24, 2005 12:00 AM

As the Kyoto Treaty to limit carbon dioxide emission takes hold, boldly-forwarded new schemes concocted to reduce energy use seem as silly as they are pointless.

The U. K.'s Department for Transport is rating the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from vehicles. Large utility vehicles, by virtue of their size and hauling capacity, would display in dealer showrooms a failing grade of F on a bright red sticker because those vehicles would emit more carbon dioxide than smaller, more fuel efficient cars, which would sport green shaded labels. The Observer clucks about the social "ignominy" of choosing a large, red-carded vehicle.

Should your disability require a large car for mobility, in the U.K. you would bear the shame of purchasing a vehicle emblazoned with a scarlet placard. Should you rescue and re-home dogs with a large vehicle, your charitable kindness would be marred by the "ignominy" of a scarlet placard. Independent sales associates may find it hard to put their equipment or landscapers their gardening implements in a small Honda Insight. Able to afford only one vehicle, a poor, working single parent may have to select an SUV for hauling customer products to find income and carrying children at other times. With only a small car, a working parent's necessary activities might require multiple trips, thus defeating reductions in fuel use or carbon dioxide emitted per mile, with the added burden of increased time cost and lost revenue.

Depending on its use, a smaller vehicle might not always be the most environmentally sensible option. It does, however, build a visible social fa├žade of seeming environmental sensitivity.

John Hathorne, an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a judge at the Salem, Mass., witch trials in 1692, where 20 women and men were legally executed for impossible crimes of witchcraft. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) examines the intolerance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's religious sect, Puritanism, where repressive rules enforced rigid lifestyles and destroyed civil freedoms for the perceived good of society.

In The Scarlet Letter a sailor gives the child Pearl a message for her mother:

        "Wilt thou tell her this, thou witch baby?"

"Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!" cried Pearl, with her naughty 
        smile. "If thou callest me that ill name, I shall tell him of thee, and he will chase thy 
        ship with a tempest!"

The Prince of the Air is the devil, and 17th Century Western cultures believed that Satan's worshippers could brew storms to sink ships. Although in the early 21st Century science is available to explain natural events, activists and even a few researchers publicly linked the Dec. 26 tsunami caused by tectonic events in the Indian Ocean or Florida's four recent landfalling hurricanes to carbon dioxide emitted by industrialization. Neither claim rests on scientific facts.

Like Puritanism's culture, the Kyoto Treaty's appeal is toward enforcing a static environment -- a characterization of climate that represents a physical impossibility. Moreover, the treaty's emission cuts are so small that the air's concentration of carbon dioxide is expected to increase over the next several decades as people use energy to rise from poverty. The cuts are predicted to retard the global warming trend at 2050 by an insensible amount -- less than one-tenth degree Celsius -- compared to natural fluctuations in temperature.

Environmental sense seems long vanished. Apparently without recognizing its high irony, the Department of Transport's scarlet placard program awards its greenest stickers to electric vehicles, which emit virtually no carbon dioxide in use. Yet recharging an electric vehicle requires buying power from local utilities supplied through the grid. In the U. K. approximately 70 percent of electricity is produced by natural gas and coal, both of which emit carbon dioxide. The green placard is no guidance on carbon dioxide emission over the fuel cycle of the vehicle. To the atmosphere it does not matter if carbon dioxide is emitted while driving a combustion-engine vehicle or while recharging a parked vehicle that operates on an electric motor.

Like Hester Prynne's scarlet letter, the meaningless scarlet placard reflects more shame on those issuing it rather than those bearing its costs.


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