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

This article originally appeared in The Globalist, July 2007.


American exceptionalism is becoming an increasingly potent force in U.S. environmental policymaking. As Eileen Claussen and Elliot Diringer argue, the United States must encourage and tap those elements of U.S. exceptionalism favoring — and overcome those impeding — stronger action and engagement in the environmental arena.

By many measures, the United States has long been at the forefront of environmental protection, both domestically and internationally.

U.S. consumerism

One particularly touchy dimension of U.S. exceptionalism on climate change is America’s unabashed devotion to consumerism.

What is regarded by many Americans as virtually a sacred right is often seen elsewhere, in poor and wealthy countries alike, as a selfish sense of entitlement.

It is not necessary to delve into the roots of American consumerism to see its powerful sway, most obviously in the case of cars and oil. Existing technology could significantly improve auto-fuel economy with little or no sacrifice in safety, performance or cost.

But the auto industry, having exploited the “light truck” loophole in federal fuel economy standards to introduce an ever-expanding line of sport utility vehicles (SUVs), has successfully fended off tighter standards in part with an argument that they would impinge on consumer choice.

Saving energy

Since the late 1980s, the average fuel economy of the American fleet has been essentially flat. Meanwhile, other countries, including China, have established fuel economy standards, either by law or voluntary agreement, substantially stronger than the United States’.

Since U.S. President Jimmy Carter exposed himself to ridicule by encouraging Americans to don sweaters and lower their thermostats, politicians have been loathe to suggest that saving energy (whether to reduce emissions or reliance on foreign oil) will entail sacrifice of any sort.

Gas taxes

Gas taxes are many times higher in Europe, yet in the United States, as the Clinton Administration discovered when it proposed a modest BTU tax, the notion of raising gas taxes is a political non-starter.

Indeed, in the spring of 2006, as gas prices reached record highs, there were bipartisan calls in the U.S. Congress to suspend the federal gas tax. “One of the unwritten stanzas of the American creed,” noted one commentator, “is that a tank of gas, whenever an American needs one, is a birthright.”

For many in other countries, confronting climate change necessarily entails an examination of lifestyle. In the United States, leaders typically invoke the notion of lifestyle only in its celebration or defense.

“The American way of life”

Asked whether President George Bush believed that changing lifestyles was an answer to America’s energy woes, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was unequivocal in his response.

“That’s a big no,” he said. “The president believes…it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.”

Policy innovator

In a very real sense, the prospects for an effective global response to climate change hinge on the willingness of the United States to engage and lead internationally.

The exceptional mix of strengths, interests and predilections we bring to this issue has made us a fickle partner in the global effort. We need to become a full partner, now and for the long term, if we are to protect our national interests and fulfill our global responsibilities.

To assume that role, we must find ways to encourage and tap those elements of U.S. exceptionalism favoring — and overcome those impeding — stronger action and engagement.

New technology

New technology is, in practical terms, the solution — and technological prowess is perhaps our greatest untapped strength.

But developing the climate-friendly technologies we need and then ensuring they are actually deployed requires more than subsidies and R&D partnerships.

New investments

The necessary investments will be made and technologies mobilized only if markets are given clear, consistent signals. These must come from government through enforceable goals and the types of market-based policies we have pioneered.

Unleashing technology will also help overcome some of the sources of resistance.

While many Americans might adopt modest changes in lifestyle to help fight global warming, our consumerism is deeply rooted. The real hope must be that alternative technologies can make the American lifestyle more compatible with climate protection.

Economic advantages

New technology also creates economic advantage. Smarter companies are positioning themselves now for an edge in the global clean-energy market.

Once the United States commits to the path, there is every reason to believe American firms will find significant opportunities. Understanding this can help turn the competitiveness argument around.

U.S. global responsibilities

Yes, some industries and workers may be disadvantaged and their needs must be met, but odds are that many more will benefit from the conversion to a clean-energy economy.

And once we can see beyond the competitiveness question, we can hopefully have a more thorough and honest debate about the broader question of fairness and America’s global responsibilities.

Depending on the issue and the time, the competing strains of U.S. exceptionalism can lead down alternate paths. On issues defined largely by competing national interests, it may be debatable whether the unilateral or multilateral course is the better option.

Multilateral solution

But with climate change, the challenge is to align multiple national interests with the global interest in a stable climate.

The only lasting solution is a multilateral one. As never before, we need the brand of exceptionalism that expresses itself in U.S. engagement and leadership.

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.