Why shouldn’t America provide exceptional leadership on carbon?
by Allen Best
Last week I listened to four hours of testimony about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan. Speakers at the Denver hearings were young and old, wide and thin, mostly white, but also black, brown and yellow.
There were boilermakers, the kind who bend steel and make pipes in factory and not the beer and whiskey combination, as well as retired school teachers, state legislators, utility executives, a preacher from Denver and a small-business owner from Las Vegas.
The 40 or so I heard speak were all as earnest as a Sunday sermon. A few were also were eloquent. Most passionately supported the EPA’s plans to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. A few faulted this bar as too low. Others – particularly those with paychecks invested in the status quo – said it was entirely too high.
But most puzzling was the curious logic that because the United States can’t solve all the world’s problems it shouldn’t take responsibility for its own actions. Tyler Hamman, director of government relations for the Lignite Energy Council in Bismark, N.D., was among several who noted that the regulations would limit global carbon dioxide emissions by only 3 percent. In other words, why bother?
This is a dark view of the United States and its role in the world. Call it American Unexceptionalism.
This original notion of American exceptionalism pointed to the democratic ideals of our founding fathers. The American Enterprise Institute says that for the first century after the adoption of the Constitution, European observers and Americans alike saw the United States as an exception, with political and civic cultures that had no counterparts anywhere else.
American exceptionalism was perverted in our westward expansion to justify dispossession of those with different values and institutions.
Yet the United States has done many good things, too. Exerting world leadership, the United States quelled facism in Europe and then established a measure of stability with the visionary Marshall Plan. Our good deeds continue. I am proud of our intervention in the ugly ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia.
Our most important battles will likely be those averted through peaceful means. The Pentagon itself has identified climate change as a significant threat to U.S. security. It’s in our vital self-interest to reduce this risk. Our exceptionalism can now be through leadership in forging policies that directly address the risk of environmental catastrophe that we, and other nations, are a part in creating.
Opponents of the EPA regulations in their testimony frequently cited Germany’s stumbles in its efforts to shrink its carbon emissions. The stumbles, in this reasoning, mean the goal itself should be abandoned. If these guys coached the Denver Broncos, they’d send Peyton Manning to the showers the first time he threw an interception.
In 2010, Germany emitted 9.7 metric tons per capita of carbon dioxide, while the United States emitted 18.2 metric tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And China? It has increased dramatically, but it was still just 6.0 metric tons, while Indian was only 1.4 metric tons.
Ultimately, yes, China and India, Qatar and Bahrain, must be part of the solution. Arguably, the Chinese already are. They have a five-year goal of 17 percent reduction in carbon intensity of their economic production relative to 2010. “They are more or less on track to achieve it,” reports David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, a Wyoming group that sends a delegation to China every year.
Is reducing our carbon emissions a difficult task? Absolutely. Last year, solar was responsible for just 0.23 percent of U.S. electrical generation. Maybe our solution isn’t solar, or even wind and biomass. Maybe it’s burning fossil fuels and sequestering the carbon.
But we know that pushing carbon into the atmosphere is a problem, a giant risk. This idea that we should do nothing because we can’t immediately solve the problem by ourselves is a gloomy one. Wait for the Chinese to solve the problem? That’s not American exceptionalism.