U.S. Exceptionalism and Climate Change (Part I)

This article originally appeared in The Globalist, July 2007.


U.S. policymaking has long been influenced by a sense of exceptionalism, or divinely blessed uniqueness. As Eileen Claussen and Elliot Diringer argue, the United States is indeed exceptional when it comes to climate change — as it is the nation with the greatest responsibility, and the greatest capacity, to lead the global response to the crisis.

By exceptionalism, we mean the unique attributes that shape and empower the U.S. international role, in this case, with respect to global climate change.

We do not mean to imply that this amalgam of interest, attitude and experience in any way confers an innate superiority. Rather, as with other international issues, there are competing strains of American exceptionalism — some tending toward multilateralism, others toward unilateralism.

Sources of U.S. exceptionalism

Some of the sources of U.S. exceptionalism on climate change are the same that condition American conduct across the full range of international relations.

First and foremost, perhaps, is a deep-seated ambivalence and at times antipathy toward international entanglements, compounded in this case by an innate distrust in some quarters of any manner of environmental cause.

A second, more structural source is a system of government that divides treaty-making powers between the executive and legislative branches, allowing divisions and disconnects — at times bordering on the dysfunctional.

A global powerhouse

Beyond such perennial influences are a number of other peculiarly American attributes shaping U.S. attitudes and action on climate change. We explore here some of the more prominent.

It is perhaps all too obvious, but the United States is exceptional in the climate arena simply by virtue of its sheer influence on the global stage. It is the world’s largest economy and not coincidentally, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — a position it has occupied for as long as records have been kept.

Environmental damage

On an annual basis, the United States accounts for roughly 25% of global emissions. Much is made of rising emissions from developing countries and the likelihood that in a decade or two China will surpass the United States as the largest emitter.

But most of the world tends to take the historical view — as most greenhouse gases reside in the atmosphere for a century or more — and from that perspective, the “largest emitter” label is not so easily shaken.

Cumulatively, the United States was responsible for nearly 30% of global emissions from 1850 to 2000, followed closely by the European Union. China and India contributed 7% and 2%, respectively.

The largest economic powerhouse

It stands to reason that, as the world’s leading economic powerhouse, the United States generates more emissions than any other country in absolute terms.

But it consistently ranks among the highest in relative terms as well. By 2025, even with the dramatic rise in developing country emissions, U.S. emissions per capita will still be four times those of China — and 14 times those of India.

Little scientific understanding

By the same token, the tremendous enterprise and prosperity that have contributed so much to the atmospheric burden also make the United States exceptionally qualified to lead the global response.

Certainly no nation has done more to advance scientific understanding of climate dynamics and the causes and potential consequences of global climate change.

By the U.S. government’s accounting, the United States spends approximately $1.7 billion a year on climate-change research — roughly half of total expenditures globally, three times more than the next largest contributor and more than the combined contributions of Japan and the European Union.

Spending lower than 20 years ago

With its vast technological research — both public and private — the United States could no doubt establish itself as the unrivaled leader on that front as well.

Yet despite the seeming proliferation of climate technology initiatives under successive administrations, federal energy research and development (R&D) spending is lower than it was 20 years ago, while private investment is down nearly 75%.

The nation with the greatest responsibility

Around the world, the United States is universally perceived as the nation with the greatest responsibility — and the greatest capacity — to address climate change.

While most other industrialized countries are taking a first step under Kyoto, it is highly improbable that other nations will commit to an ambitious, sustained effort without the United States, especially as it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Even apart from its position as the world’s only superpower, the United States is de facto the most influential player on this issue, whether — or in what manner — it chooses to engage.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is adapted from “Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century,” copyright 2007 The Century Foundation Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.