The Magnificent Myth of American Leadership

On August 16th, 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 was signed into law by President Joe Biden, thereby committing the United States of America to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% compared to 2005 levels by 2030. To say the climate change community was ecstatic would be an understatement. I was so happy that I treated my wife out to a fancy dinner, which we topped off with a banana split from a nearby ice-cream place. August 16th was an occasion to celebrate.

Yes, there was some complaining that this new law isn’t enough or could have gone further. While the bill certainly could have done more in a perfect world, the world isn’t perfect and I will take whatever climate action I can get. And now, President Biden can go to COP27 (the big international climate conference that hammers out international climate goals and treaties) and say with a straight face that America is a leader in the struggle against climate change.

But the idea that America is a country of moral leaders against the ills of the world is not quite true. While more than enough digital ink has been spilled on declaring America a hopelessly divided country, that’s not where I’m going with this. Quite simply, America (which for the purposes of this essay is shorthand for the American government) has a history of following rather than leading in the great struggles that have threatened humanity. Examples are not hard to find. Slavery was abolished in France in 1794, abolished in England in 1833, Canada in 1834, and the United States eventually joined them in 1865. The United States did not lead the charge to abolish slavery. But once it joined the moral majority, pretty much every country on Earth followed, with a series of treaties over the next century creating international consensus that slavery was reprehensible.

The World Wars of the 20th century are another example. America joined World War I in 1916, nearly three years after horrific trench warfare had been fought under a reign of machinegun and artillery fire, killing millions of military personnel and civilians. America’s entry to the war brought new troops to counter the exhausted German army, gave a tremendous boost to morale, and played a role in the 100 days offensive. A similar story played out in World War II. The United States was neutral for the first two years of the war (but provided plenty of weaponry to the Allied forces) before joining the war in 1941 and playing an extraordinary role in the European and Pacific Theaters. The United States joining the Second World War likely accelerated it, bringing the war to a conclusion and ending the terrifying reign of the Nazis. Again, not quite to join the conflict, but certainly on the right side of history with an incredible show of heroism overall.

And finally, we come to climate change. Scientists have been sounding the alarm about our changing climate for over thirty years, with an initial attempt to pre-emptively manage climate change taking the form of the Kyoto Protocols, which the United States Congress refused to ratify, effectively killing the treaty. In the decades that followed, climate change was pushed aside as too uncertain to plan for or respond to, and attempted legislation to reduce emissions stalled in congress a decade later. While the EPA tightened regulations as much as it could, no major climate legislation was passed in the 00’s or 10’s in the United States. Some progress was seen elsewhere, as other developed countries pledged to reach net-zero emissions (a drastic reductions with some capture and storage to offset whatever is left) by 2050 with interim goals leading up to it. America finally joined the party this year with the Inflection Reduction Act of 2022, bringing them in line with the most aggressive policies on the world stage today.

But catching up to the world is not leadership. And frankly, Americans rarely lead. But what Americans can do, which I am tremendously thankful for, is they can change the tide. When Americans get on the right side of an issue, their overwhelming cultural power and global influence gets the rest of the world to fall into line. America is not inherently the moral majority, but it can back the moral majority and turn that side into an overwhelming force for change. America has done so time and time again. And now they’ve done it with the struggle against climate change. Because of America, I have more hope and optimism about humanity’s struggle with the climate crisis than I’ve ever had before in my life.

So thank you, from a Canadian climate change specialist, and someone looking forward to working with Americans over the next decade as we do everything we can to slow and manage our changing climate.

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