Cheney’s “virtue.”

Bill Kristof’s latest op-ed in the New York Times makes the argument for energy efficiency and conservation as being keystones of environmental and and energy policy, rather than just a “personal virtue,” as Cheney once deridingly dismissed them.

Dick Cheney once scoffed that energy conservation can be a “personal virtue” but is no basis for an energy policy. Growing evidence suggests he had it exactly wrong…

Mr. Cheney’s image seems to be of a dour stoic shivering in a cardigan in a frigid home, squinting under a dim light bulb, showering under a tiny trickle of (barely) solar-heated water, and then bicycling to work in the rain. If that’s the alternative, then many of us might be willing to see the oceans rise, whatever happens to Florida.

But as Kristof points out, technology advances don’t require such sacrifices. Lighting, insulation, water heating, appliances, transportation… In all of these areas, we’ve seen massive improvement in efficiency and usability. But existing technologies aren’t being adopted quickly enough. And so while government funding and incentives for the development of new technologies are critically needed, so too are strategies to get wider adoption of those that already exist. Sure, the hydrogen highway sounds amazing (personally, I think it’s a big canard), but can’t we focus now on getting plug-in hybrids in every driveway?

And evidence shows that conservation and energy efficiency measures save money, lots of money.

“This is not a sacrifice deal,” Daniel Yergin, head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, says of conservation. “This is a technology deal. After all, we’re twice as energy efficient now as we were in the 1970s, and at the same time our economy has more than doubled.”

James Woolsey, an energy expert and former director of the C.I.A., puts it this way: “People have radically overestimated the sacrifice and dramatically underestimated the opportunity.”

McKinsey & Company, the business consulting company, suggests embracing energy-saving measures that pay for themselves with at least a 10 percent rate of return. McKinsey says that if this approach — at no cost to economic growth — were put into effect worldwide, by 2020 the annual savings would be 1.5 times the current U.S. annual energy consumption.

McKinsey Global Institute put out a 290-page book in May detailing the steps necessary. These include better insulation and high-efficiency heating in new homes; low-energy light bulbs; high-efficiency appliances; and higher fuel economy standards for vehicles. To drive a mile in the U.S. typically takes 37 percent more gas than in Europe.

“The sheer waste of it all, when other countries have shown another path, is incredible,” notes Diana Farrell of McKinsey Global Institute. “The opportunities here are tremendous.”

Kristof ends with one of the best responses I’ve heard to those who caution against taking steps to address global warming:

Climate skeptics say that we don’t know how serious climate change will be, and they’re right. But isn’t it prudent to address threats even when we’re unsure of them? We don’t expect to be caught in a fire, but we still believe in fire escapes and fire departments.

Suppose we had political leaders who snorted that fires are nothing new, that the science of firefighting is unclear, and that we can’t impose a burden on business by establishing fire departments — while brightly adding that citizens can extinguish fires on their own out of “personal virtue.”

Why, we would think those leaders were nuts.

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