The United States Is Exceptional — Just Not in the Ways Any of Us Should Want

Three years after the end World War II, George Kennan, diplomat, was born. outlinedThe challenges faced by the country along the way:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. This situation makes us the object of envy, resentment, and even a little bit of resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”

In a nutshell this was the postwar U.S. exceptionalism. Washington planned to manage the world to maintain the incredibly grotesque disparity. Kennan didn’t see any obstacles to the poor requesting a share of the wealth.

Today, as humanity confronts a looming climate catastrophe, what’s needed is a new political-economic project. Its aim would be to replace such exceptionalism and the hoarding of the earth’s resources with what’s been called “a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

In 1948, very few people thought about the environmental consequences of over-consumption. Yet even then, however unknown, this country’s growing wealth had a dark underside: the slow-brewing crisis of climate change. Wealth meant, quite literally, the intensified extraction and production of resources. It turned out that fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases associated with them were crucial to every step of the process.

Today, the situation has shifted — at least a bit. With approximately 4% of the world’s population, the United States still holds about 30While % of its wealth is gone, its commitment to over-consumption as well as maintaining global dominance remain unaffected. To grasp that, all you have to do is consider the Biden White House’s recent Indo-Pacific Strategy policy brief, which begins in this telling way: “The United States is an Indo-Pacific power.” Indeed.

2022 will see the following: relationshipIt has become increasingly clear that there is a direct correlation between wealth and climate catastrophe. The crucial years 1990-2015 were crucial for the global economy. expandedFrom $47 trillion up to $108 trillion Global annual greenhouse-gas emissions increased by a staggering $108 trillion during the same period. grewBy more than 60% Remember that 1990 was the year when atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, CO2, first reached their peak. surpassed what many scientists believed was the level of safety — 350 parts per million, or ppm. But in the 32 years since, more CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) have been detected. emittedAtmospheric CO2 has a greater impact on the atmosphere than any time in human history, and is now more widely distributed into the atmosphere careenedPast 400 ppm in 2016, with 420 ppm fast approaching.

Emissions and inequality

Growing global wealth is closely linked with rising emissions. But the wealth and responsibility for those emissions are not shared equally among the planet’s population. An individual level, the wealthiest people on Earth consume — and emit — far more than their poorer counterparts. The richest 10% of the world’s population, or about 630 million people, were responsibleMore than half of the rise in greenhouse gas emissions over the past quarter-century has been attributable to poor countries. At a national level rich countries are home to more people with high consumption levels, which means that the country’s emissions will be greater the wealthier it is.

The United States is the top country in terms of per-capita income. ranks13th in the World. The countries that are above it are mostly small, including some of the Persian Gulf States, Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore. So, despite their high per-capita emissions, their overall contribution isn’t that big. Our per-capita emission explosions have had a devastating impact on our country, which is third on the planet.

With a population of around 330 million, the United States today has less than a quarter of either China’s population of more than 1.4 billion or India’s, which is just under that figure. Four other countries — Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan — fall into the population range of 200 to 300 million, but their per-capita gross domestic products (GDPs) and their per-capita emissions are far below ours. In fact, the U.S. GDPA total of $19 trillion, which is far more than any other country, is followed by China (12 trillion) and Japan (5 trillion).

The United States is an exceptional country when it comes both its wealth and size. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, until 2006, it was also by far the world’s top CO2 emitter. After that, it was surpassed by a fast-developing China (though that country’s per capita emissions remain less than half of ours) and no other country’s greenhouse gas emissions come close to either of those two.

To fully understand different countries’ responsibility, it’s necessary to go past yearly numbers and look at how much they’ve emitted over time, since the greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere don’t disappear at the end of the year. Again, this is one country. stands outThe United States is the most polluting country, with 416 billion tonnes of cumulative emissions by 2020. China’s, which didn’t start rising rapidly until the 1980s, reached 235 billion tons in that year, while India trailed at 54 billion.

Having the first hit 20 billion tons in 1910, U.S. cumulative emissions have only shot up ever since, while China’s didn’t hit that 20 billion mark until 1979. The U.S. has a huge advantage and is still ahead of China when it comes down to destroying the planet.

The U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN), argues that excessive emitters like the United States have already used up far more than their “fair share” of this planet’s carbon budget and so, in fact, owe a huge carbon debt to the rest of the world to make up for their outsized contribution to the problem of climate change over the past two centuries. Unfortunately, the 2015 Paris Agreement’s voluntary, non-enforceable, and nationally determined limits on emissions functionally let rich countries continue on their damaging ways.

Nation should be held accountable for their carbon debt. The world’s poorest people, who have contributed practically nothing to the problem, deserve access to a portion of the remaining budget and to the sort of aid that would enable them to develop alternative forms of energy to meet their basic needs.

Under the fair-share proposal, it’s not enough for the United States just to stop adding emissions. This country needs to repay the climate debt it’s already incurred. USCAN estimates that the United States must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030 and contribute the cash equivalent to 125% annually through technical and financial assistance to energy-poor countries.

Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal proposal adopted the concept of the “fair share.” True leadership in the global climate fight, Sanders has argued, means recognizing that “the United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.”

His voice and those like it on this subject are unfortunately still far from the mainstream of the all-too-right-wing right. (And if you doubt that, just check Joe Manchin’s recent voting record.)

Are New Technologies Creating Progress?

In 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade — the goal that the countries involved in the Paris Agreement, including the United States, accepted as their baseline for action. It concluded that, to have a 50% chance of staying below that temperature increase, our future collective emissions couldn’t exceed 480 gigatons (or 480 billion tons). That, in other words, was humanity’s remaining carbon budget.

Global emissions exceeded 40 gigatons per year in 2018, which means that even if they were reduced almost immediately (which is not likely), we would still be using that budget within a few dozen years. Worse, despite a Covid induced decline in 2020 global emissions actually increased. rebounded2021 will be a year of rapid change.

Most scenarios for emission reductions, including those proposed by the IPCC, rely optimistically on new technologies to enable us to get there without making substantive changes in the global economy or in the excessive consumption of the world’s richest people and countries. Such technological advances, it’s hoped, would allow us to produce as much, or possibly more energy from renewable sources and even possibly begin removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support the likelihood of such progress, especially in the time we have left. No matter how much new technology we develop, there seems to be no completely “clean” form of energy. All of them — nuclear, wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, and perhaps others still to be developed — rely on massive industrial operations to extract finite resources from the earth; factories to process them; facilities to create, store, and transmit energy; and, in the end, some form of waste (think batteries, solar panels, old electric cars, and so on). Each energy source will have numerous harmful environmental effects. Meanwhile, as the use of alternative forms of energy production increases worldwide, it hasn’t yet reduced fossil-fuel use. Instead, it’s just addedOur growing energy consumption.

It’s true that the world’s wealthiest countries have achieved some gains in decouplingEconomic growth is a result of rising emissions. This minor decoupling can be attributed to a shift in coal use to natural gas and the outsourcing of certain dirty industries. Global greenhouse gas emissions remain unchanged as decoupling has not yet made a significant impact. It seems unlikely that this trend will continue after these initial and easiest steps have been taken. So basically, all climates are at risk. modelingSimilar to the IPCC, it suggests that new technologies will be required to remove CO2 from our atmosphere to combat rising emissions.

However, negative emission technologies are still a large part of the solution. aspirationalThis is the point. Instead of counting on what still to a significant extent remain technological fantasies, while the wealthy continue their profligacy, it’s time to shift our thinking more radically and focus, as I do in my new book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice, on how to reduce extraction, production, and consumption in far more socially just ways, so that we can indeed begin to live within our planet’s means. Call it “post-growth” or “degrowth” thinking.

Make no mistake: we can’t live without energy and we desperately do need to turn to alternatives to fossil fuels. Alternative energies can only be made viable if we can reduce our energy use. This means reorganizing the global economic system. If energy is a scarce and precious resource, then ways must be found to prioritize its use to meet the urgent needs of the world’s poor, rather than endlessly expanding the luxuries of the wealthiest among us. And that’s precisely what degrowth thinking is all about: scaling back the mindless pursuit of production, consumption, and profit in favor of “human wellbeing and ecological stability.”

Abandoning Exceptionalism

In April 2021, President Biden made a dramatic announcement, setting a new goal for U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions — to reduce them 50% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

But given that this country’s CO2 emissions had hit a high of 6.13 billion tons in 2005, that means by 2030 we’d still be emitting three billion tons of CO2 a year. Even if net-zero was possible by 2050, it would still be a challenge for our country. used up one quarterThe planet’s remaining carbon budget. And right now, given the state of the American political system, there’s neither a genuine plan nor an obvious way to reach Biden’s goal. If we stay on our current path — and don’t count on that if the Republicans take Congress in 2022 and the White House again in 2024 — we would barely achieve a 30% reductionBy 2030

At this point, there’s no guarantee we’ll stay on that path, no matter the political party in power. Take this for example:

  • In 2010, about halfHalf of all new cars sold in the United States was cars, while half was SUVs or trucks. Close to 80% of new vehicles sold in America by 2021 would be SUVs or trucks.
  • More than 900,000.00 new houses were built in 2020 builtTheir median size is 2,261 square feet. They had 4 or more bedrooms, and 870,000 had central air conditioners.
  • President Biden’s infrastructure bill, signedIn November 2021, $763 billion was allocated for new highways.

And let’s not even talk about the military-industrial-congressional complex and war. The Department of Defense is, after all, the single largest institutional consumerThe world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and fossil fuels. Our military produces more CO2 than wealthy countries like Sweden and Denmark each year, thanks to its global bases, promotion of arms industry and ongoing global wars.

In the meantime, John Kerry, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, was in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of the preparations for the climate-change meeting. insisted repeatedlyThe United States must work with China to bring them aboard. Joe Biden tooHis attention remained centered on China. Indeed, China’s greenhouse gas emissions are alarming. still-expanding use of coalChina does indeed have a major role to play. However, to the rest the world, this insistence on diverting our attention from our role in the climate crisis rings hollow.

A 2021 study shows that almost all of the world’s remaining coal, not to speak of most of its gas and oil reserves, will need to stay in the ground if global warming is to be kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade. In 2018, another. study found that even to meet a 2-degree centigrade goal, which it’s now all too clearThe consequences of climate change would be severe, and humanity would need to stop. AllNew infrastructure built on fossil-fuels and immediately decommission fossil-fuel-burning power plants. These new facilities are being built in an unstoppable fashion around the world. If the United States, which has the greatest responsibility for our current climate crisis, is not ready to change its course, how can it expect others to do so?

However, to change course would be to abandon exceptionalism.

Degrowth scholars argue that, rather than risking all of our futures on as-yet-unproven technologies in order to cling to economic growth, we should seek social and political solutions that would involve redistributing the planet’s wealth, its scarce resources, and its carbon budget in ways that prioritize basic needs and social wellbeing globally.

However, this would require the United States acknowledging the dark side to its exceptionalism and agreeing to relinquish them. This seems highly unlikely, even though it is possible in March 2022.