There are times and places where being an American can make you the center of attention, and not always in a fun way.
When your country does things that the rest of the world sees as selfish, short-sighted, ignorant, arrogant or just plain ornery, it’s uncomfortable to find yourself being asked to explain to perplexed foreigners what the heck those crazy Americans are thinking …
Over the three days I was in Brussels for the Climate Action Conference earlier this week, it was impossible to get away from the widely-held and deeply-felt belief in pretty much the rest of the world that the single biggest roadblock to getting a meaningful climate treaty is the US.
Again and again, while speakers recounted the current state of affairs in the climate negotiations and how we got there, the narrative hit the point last August when the US Senate allowed the Kerry-Lieberman energy bill to die of neglect.
Headline: US Bails on Climate Action: Everything Grinds to Abrupt Halt.
Sure, there are lots of other issues hanging things up. For example, the poor countries want the rich countries to give them large amounts of money so they can get clean technologies that will allow them to leapfrog over the dirty-energy industrial phase of development that made the rich countries rich in the first place.
The poor countries also think the rich countries – who are historically responsible for the lion’s share of the carbon emissions that are slowly cooking the planet – should make sharper reductions in their own greenhouse gas emissions before they ask the poor countries to cut back.
And the Chinese – who just this year edged out the US as the planet’s biggest carbon polluters — are being generally irascible because they just really, really hate foreigners telling them what to do about anything.
EU climate officials go to great lengths to stress that progress is being made on other fronts, despite the Americans deciding not to play ball (although it’s kind of hard to get very excited about the handful of incremental steps they point to: the agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees isn’t very impressive when you realize that even the non-binding targets countries have set for carbon cuts won’t be nearly enough to arrest rising temperatures).
But whatever other bumps there are the road to Cancun, the fact is that America — the second largest economy in the world (right behind the eurozone), the beacon of democracy, the sole remaining global superpower — just couldn’t get it together and get with the program. And that’s put a serious damper on the whole enterprise.
That sentiment reached a high point Tuesday evening at the climate conference in Brussels. We had just had a video call from Jeffrey Sachs, an American professor who teaches sustainable economic development at Columbia University. He also heads The Earth Institute at Columbia.
Sachs told us that, in his view, the failure of the US to pass climate change legislation this year was a game-changer. The comet came, the comet went, and the rest of the world shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for the Americans to get on board. Not happening anytime in the foreseeable future, he said, even if the Democrats manage to stave off disaster in the midterms.
He pointed out that polls show barely half of Americans see climate change as anything to get concerned about (In fact, a Pew poll that was released a day after Sach’s presentation shows it’s even worse than that). And, he added, many representatives who voted for what’s been labeled “the job-killing cap-and-trade bill” are expected to bite the dust in next week’s mid-terms.
Sach’s bottom line: except for the outside chance that China will get on board, forcing the US to join in, the rest of the world should proceed on the assumption that America isn’t going to be part of any serious solution to global climate change.
During the dinner that followed, anxious European colleagues pressed me: Was the situation really that grim in the US? Could Sachs’ depressing take be accurate? And if so, what’s up with that?
It’s hard to know what to say in situations like that. So often, Americans’ political stances perplex me. Why do so many prefer to believe that Glenn Beck understands better what’s going on with the earth’s climate than the planet’s top climate scientists? How can people who wouldn’t know a hypothesis if it bit them in the butt state with certainty that global warming is being caused by sunspots? Or that the planet isn’t warming at all? Where does this astonishing mix of confidence and ignorance come from?
Given that millions of American voters say they don’t accept evolution because, “It’s just a theory,” perhaps I shouldn’t find this so surprising.
But I find myself coming back to an Upton Sinclair quote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”
Given a choice between sticking with what’s put food on the table so far, and an uncertain future that may well see dramatic shifts in how people earn a living, many Americans prefer to disregard climate science because accepting it would require them to make changes they don’t want to have to make.
Maybe that’s just human nature.
But when Europeans point out that their people seem to be willing to deal with the reality and start making those changes, I really don’t know what to say.