American Exceptionalism on Climate Change

(Note: This essay was originally published as “Fred Zilian: Obama Leads on Climate, but Will U.S. Follow?” by the Providence Journal on December 17, 2015, and as “U.S. Out of Step in Fight Against Climate Change,” by the Newport Daily News on December 22, 2015.)

On December 12, after over 20 years of largely futile attempts to reach a meaningful agreement on climate change, the international community succeeded at the COP (Conference of Parties) 21 meeting in France in taking its first genuine step toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The United States was once again exceptional in its leadership and vision; however, this positive exceptionalism may transform into a negative exceptionalism, given our domestic politics and public complacency.

A near universal international action, 195 states approved the agreement. While there is no legal requirement to cut emissions in the agreement, 186 states have already submitted plans for cutting carbon emissions through 2025 or 2030. There is, however, a legal requirement for states to strengthen progressively their measures on climate change. Beginning in 2020, states will convene every five years, and beginning in 2023, the pressure of world opinion will increase as states reconvene to report publicly their progress in decreasing emissions.

UN General Secretary Ban, Ki-Moon called it “a truly historic moment” and “a truly universal agreement.” President Barak Obama indicated that the agreement “sends a powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future.” German environmental scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber asserted: “This is a turning point in the human enterprise, where the great transformation towards sustainability begins.” On the Eiffel Tower the words “FOR THE PLANET” stood aglow.

Here in Rhode Island, Governor Raimondo jumped on the bandwagon by signing an executive order on December 8, committing the state’s government to be 100% powered by clean energy sources by 2025, an ambitious goal.

The agreement has come none too soon, as CO₂ in the atmosphere has reached levels unprecedented in human history. The global average temperature has risen about .8° Celsius (1.45° F) in the past century. The ten hottest years on record, dating back to 1880, have taken place since 1998. Last year was the hottest on record, and 2015 looks to beat that record. CO₂ levels in the oceans are increasing, boosting acidity, and sea ice is decreasing. Nearly all the world’s 144 glaciers monitored since 1900 have retreated. And in my garden, I find myself in mid-December weeding and admiring my Gazania flowers—uncanny for this time of year.

President Obama and his administration have shown exceptional leadership and management leading up to and at the conference. Last year the president enacted stronger regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. In November 2014, he and Mr. Xi Jinping, the leader of China, announced jointly plans to slash these emissions. While it is unclear how much of a role the president and Secretary of State John Kerry played, the agreement is not a treaty and therefore will not require approval of the US Senate, as required by our Constitution—very smart politically.

Nonetheless, Congress must still approve any new appropriations to enact the agreement, and this is where the US may again prove exceptional—divided against itself and out of step with most other countries. Shortly after the conference had begun and after President Obama had pledged to be a leader in the global response to climate change, the Republican-dominated Congress passed two resolutions essentially denying this. Also, after the December 12 agreement, Republican leader Mitch McConnell stated: “Before his international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal … that Congress has already voted to reject.”

Moreover, Americans are out of step with most of the international community on climate change. Recent polling data (AP NORC Center for Public Affairs Research) indicates that fewer than one in four Americans are extremely or very worried about climate change. In Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 2013, 40 percent of Americans said that global climate change was a major threat to their country, compared to more than 50 percent of Canadians, Australians, French and Germans; more than 60 percent of Italians and Spaniards; and more than 70 percent of Japanese.

The words of Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle seem apt: “England is an island, France the edge of a continent, America another world.”

Fred Zilian ( teaches environmental politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI.



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4 Responses to American Exceptionalism on Climate Change

  1. Dan Meucci says:

    Fred, Sorry but I think this is a useless agreement without any teeth. Also, I think Global Warming and Climate Change is really a factor of weather. Our Planet has been around for over 200 million years and some scientists believe that man has changed the climate in just 100 years?
    I can send you a list of famous scientists who disagree with the PC correct scientists on this issue. There is no question that man has had
    and adverse effective to our climate but not to the level that the liberal progressives like Obama are making out and using as a tool to kill our coal industry and throw many people out of work.
    China and India are the two biggest offenders of carbon emissions and they will never stop burning coal…which will negate any efforts we make.

  2. Fred Zilian says:

    Thank you for your calm and reasoned response to my essay, unlike most of the emotional and derogatory comments I receive.
    You make some good points, ones I have wrestled with in my mind and in the course I teach on Environmental Politics at Salve Regina. My science sources tell me:
    1. Yes, the world has become warmer before; however, it is warming in the last few decades about 100 times faster than the rate of warming after the last ice age.
    2. We need to move from dirty fuels to cleaner fuels, but as we do this we need to soften the blow on those affected negatively and also to maintain our economic growth. Business must be enlisted in the technological effort, especially because I do not want the Chinese to move in front of us.
    3. China is showing signs that it is moving in the right direction. Its recent air pollution red alerts in Beijing will only spur this movement. Yes, you are right that India is a big questions mark. New Delhi has been named the most polluted city in the world.

    I would appreciate any well-reasoned sources that explain skeptical views. I search for them each time I teach my course, but normally I can find only an occasional essay and many letters to the editor. They normally attack the climate models used or some other narrow slice of the debate.

  3. Alison N Smeallie says:

    Uncle Fred,
    I particularly enjoyed this post because it highlights the reputation the US has earned for itself on the world stage, as hypocrites. Only country to drop nukes, doesn’t want other countries to have nukes of their won. We helped found the UN and then blatantly ignore or refuse to sign onto resolutions we find inconvenient to our “national interests”. And finally, we led the world, including newly Industrialized nations, to sign an international climate agreement that the majority of our congress has no intention of implementing because they’re still unsure of how this whole ice melting thing works (see video of the republican member of congress serving on the house committee on science, space, and technology who denies climate change because his cup doesn’t overflow when the ice melts I hope we can one day overcome our American arrogance and learn to accept that we as a nation are part of a larger international community that will require cooperation. Thanks for the great post, love reading your work!

    Alison Smeallie

    • Fred Zilian says:

      Dear Alison,
      Many thanks for your thoughtful message. I am glad you enjoyed this essay. It stems from the course I teach at Salve Regina University here in Newport, RI. As I teach it every other year, it’s a good challenge for me to keep abreast of the latest events re: climate change. I share your frustration with our fellow citizens who appear so dismissive of the wide array of evidence of climate change and the need for strong action to adapt to and to mitigate it.
      Please update me (at on your status: university? major? goals for the future?
      Uncle Fred
      (C) 401.714.4667

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