Considering arguments pro and con about whether to blame the United States for climate change (see Parts 1 and 2) my conclusion is that blame—responsibility, if you prefer—deserves to be widely shared. Climate change seems an example of what a classic Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly claimed almost a half-century ago about pollution of the natural environment: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That cartoon was also a poster for Earth Day 1971, shown below (and licensed via Wikipedia).
One can easily appreciate the reasons why the world has harnessed fossil fuels, including moving billions of people out of abject poverty, thereby cutting world poverty rates by more than half in recent years. In just one or two generations China (whose GHG emissions now exceed those of the U.S.), India, and other less developed countries raised the standard of living of vast numbers of people, in part through burning fossil fuels. But despite 50 years of warnings, the nations of the world and most individuals have responded slowly, or not at all, to the threats posed by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels.
Technologies are always double-edged swords, providing benefits while also causing or exacerbating problems. The industrial revolution saved lives and increased standards of living—and also contributed to exponential population growth, the consumer society, and excess GHG emissions. (Similarly, computers and the internet have resulted in many benefits to the world yet also lead to concerns about hacking on a giant scale, erosion of personal privacy, cyber warfare, job loss, and more.)
In this context, one notes that the United States is a leading technology innovator. Many American icons, such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, are known for their innovative ideas, products and discoveries, most of which rely on energy in one way or another. Around the world, people have adopted countless American technological inventions and devices, and many aspire to American lifestyles. With respect to responsibility for climate change, the U.S. may be a technology and a lifestyle leader, but dozens of nations are eager followers.
Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1835, thoughtful observers have written about the “exceptionalism” of the United States, sometimes as praiseworthy and sometimes in disbelief (e.g., the amazement of most people outside the U.S. about the lack of adequate gun control in America). Many people wish to do away with “incurable American excess,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, meaning guns, obesity, luxury lifestyles, large per-capita GHG emissions, and more. But Cohen concludes, as others have, that “America’s virtues—its creative churn, vitality, and energy,” and its innovative spirit, are inextricably linked to its vices.
The same appears to be true of the world’s use of fossil fuels. Many nations have focused too much on the virtues (real and apparent) of abundant, inexpensive energy, and not enough on the problems caused by burning fossil fuels (some of which, like coal mine deaths, and polluted air, have been tolerated in many places for more than a century). For a long time the world has embraced the tangled combination of virtue and vice in using fossil fuels, now including growing awareness of excess GHG emissions. In this matter the U.S. is not as exceptional as one wishes it were.