Where Is That Good, Old American Can-Do Spirit?

Where is that the famous American optimism and can-do approach when it comes to protecting the environment?

June 20, 2001

Where is that the famous American optimism and can-do approach when it comes to protecting the environment?

At this point in the still dawning history of environmental diplomacy, it is instructive to survey European attitudes toward the United States. What so confounds us — Europe’s business leaders, government officials and environmentalists alike — is the way in which U.S. opponents of action on global warming have cast the debate.

We are puzzled and a bit astonished to find that the key element of America’s well-known optimism and proud dynamism apparently has been thrown overboard. We find it quite incredible to hear that a nation capable of landing a robot on Mars does not believe it can master the technological and economic challenges of protecting the environment.

If, as some in U.S. business and the Bush Administration apparently contend, economic growth would be wrecked by stronger action on global warming, then one must examine what is really implied by this argument. The logical inference would be that the superior U.S. growth of the 1990s was achieved through an indiscriminate willingness to pollute the environment.

Is that the secret to its much-vaunted economic renaissance? We Europeans would be truly surprised if any self-respecting U.S. business or political leader agreed with such a proposition. And yet, it is very much the unstated premise behind much of the thinking of those in the United States who oppose action on global warming.

Europeans are equally astonished at the simple-minded business model apparently still used in at least some U.S. companies, especially in energy-related industries. Some U.S. utility executives still seem to believe that corporate earnings depend on linear increases in energy consumption.

But as many European utilities have already realized, the best path to higher profitability is not more production, but smarter production. Energy efficiency may not lead to higher revenues, which is the “easy” way to boost profits. But it almost certainly leads to lower costs — and thus higher-quality earnings, which should warrant a premium among investors and analysts.

Americans who oppose the necessary compromises will no doubt intensify their efforts by continuing to cite the alleged “unfairness” of a deal that would give some countries, like China and India, more room to increase their greenhouse gas emissions, while the United States would be obliged to cut its own.

No doubt, this argument is favored by those who are sure that the economic progress of the developing countries can come only at the expense of U.S. jobs. What confounds me, though, is that conservative U.S. politicians seem to be of two minds.

On the one hand, they tend to be in favor of eliminating limits to international trade and are quick in the domestic arena to criticize any claims of “unfair competition,” which are typically brought on by unions and their representatives. On the other hand, when it comes to the environment — and the role that the emerging market countries play in that field — U.S. conservatives are as protective of domestic U.S. interests as even the most ardent labor representatives.

But leaving such political fallacies aside for the moment, we in Europe can only ask: Is it really now the established political practice of the world’s undisputed leader to say that “the meek shall lead — or I will not follow?”

While it is true that the greenhouse emissions of the developing world will dramatically increase in the next century, it simply cannot be denied that the United States is the world’s largest polluter — in both relative and absolute terms. Worse yet, it will hold that title for some years to come. Nothing can relieve the United States of its responsibility in this regard.