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Lights of Paris

01/02/08 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin is a teacher with an interest in all-things-French. When he heard that Paris - known as the City of Lights - decorated the Champs Elysées with LED lights for the holidays this year, it made him wonder when we'll see similar changes here in the U.S.

(MARTIN) People say that the Champs Elysées in Paris is the most beautiful avenue in the world, and if you saw it around this time of year, you might agree. The wide sidewalks are full of smartly dressed shoppers, and the window displays are alluring set pieces of luxury items. At the top of the avenue, the Arc de Triomphe gives off a yellow glow after dark. At the bottom, the gold-tipped pillar of the Obélisque stands in front of la Grande Roue, a 200 ft. Ferris wheel spiraling in the night sky. The lovely Champs-Elysées Avenue runs between the Arc and the Obelisk, and when it's decked out for the season white lights sparkle from top to bottom.

This year, Vanessa Paradis, the lovely singer/actress who is also Johnny Depp's partner, inaugurated the holiday decorations with the Mayor of Paris, and the lights were more beautiful than ever. There were over a million lights on over 400 trees lining the avenue, draped so the trees looked like white fountains, or maybe giant crystal wine glasses.

But the most beautiful thing about the lights this year is that they are all LED, or light-emitting diode, those new light bulbs that save so much energy. For example, these new LED lights on the Champs Elysées will cut this year's electricity bill by two-thirds and still give off more light than last year's decorations.

Earlier this year, the French actually turned off the lights in the City of Lights. The Eiffel Tower and other well-lit monuments throughout France were plunged into darkness to draw attention to energy conservation. It was only a 5-minute, symbolic black-out, but, still, it got the public's attention and sent a dramatic message.

All this makes me wonder what message our government is sending. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali last month, countries demanded the United States do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but our government kept specific emissions goals out of the final agreement. One delegate told the U.S., "If you're not going to lead, get out of the way."

I remember back when Jimmy Carter sent a message by walking - not driving - down Pennsylvania Avenue to his inauguration. Unfortunately, we haven't improved our national energy policy much since then. To cite just two examples, we could have used LED technology 30 years ago, and we could have had higher CAFE standards years ago, too. Our fuel economy standard for 2012 is only 35 mpg, while Japan and Europe have standards of 45 and 52mpg respectively.

Unlike the Europeans, Americans usually don't look to their government for solutions, but at this point we need an urgent, national initiative. We need political leaders who understand the science and are brave enough to act immediately. Getting serious about smart lights and cleaner cars like the Europeans is just a start - but you have to start somewhere. And it might as well be now, at the start of this New Year.

For more commentaries by Mike Martin, go to VPR-dot-net.
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