The Paris Climate Agreement and American Exceptionalism
October 07, 2016
By Samantha Fox, W’18
In particular, the Paris Climate Agreement announced several major goals: 1) to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, 2) to mobilize climate finance, especially for developing countries, 3) to reduce total global greenhouse gas emissions, 4) to reevaluate targets for emissions on a five-year cycle and maintain international and domestic transparency, and 5) to strengthen global efforts to mitigate losses incurred by climate change. Overall, the Agreement is strong because it is works from the bottom up—it allows countries to maintain sovereignty and decide for themselves how to best limit the amount of carbon emissions in light of their domestic economies. As seems to be the pattern in this election cycle, the American political parties are sharply split over the United States’ involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement. Interestingly, both those in favor of and against the Paris Climate Agreement tend to utilize rhetoric that draws on the theory of American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is “a city on a hill” for the rest of the world to emulate and follow.
In particular, Donald Trump and the Republican Party at large have repeatedly disparaged such efforts, calling the Agreement “bad for US business”. Indeed, the Paris Climate Agreement might damage the already floundering U.S. coal industry, which produced the lowest levels of coal in more than three decades in April . Since the inception of his campaign, Trump has repeatedly emphasized his dedication to restoring the coal industry to its former glory (regardless of if doing so is feasible). In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump claimed that current restrictions on the production of energy will cost more than “$20 trillion in job-creating activity over the next four decades”. Much of his argument on why the U.S. government ought to repeal environmental protections draws on the idea and emotion that America should but may no longer be the economic leader of the world thanks to 2008 economic crash and Obama’s internationalist policies, especially in the eyes of working class citizens. (It remains to be seen if Trump will reconcile his stance on environmental issues and his desire to appeal to disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters. After all, Bernie Sanders and his supporters are largely galvanized by environmental issues and will most likely remain vocal into general election in November). In either case, various world leaders have increased pressure on other states for ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement as a response to Trump’s threats.
On the other side of the aisle, President Obama has used similar language to promote American involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement. In a statement from the Office of the Press Secretary, the Administration called the treaty “a tribute to American leadership” after nearly a decade of being “a global leader in fighting climate change” . President Obama uses such language to pacify anxieties about job security. Like Trump, he taps into a longstanding political belief in American exceptionalism to draw support for what might be a contentious proposal (though in Obama’s case, it seems to be used as justification for potential economic sacrifices).
At this time, whether the Paris Climate Agreement will be able to meet its lofty goals or will fade into inefficacy remains to be seen. However, it is clear that the debate over the Paris Climate Agreement frequently utilizes on rhetoric that revolves around American Exceptionalism. Ultimately, debate over the Paris Climate Agreement raises the question—in an increasingly globalized market and in a world whose problems require greater amounts of collaboration, is it responsible for American politicians to continue to use rhetoric that celebrates American individualism? Can promoting nationalistic pride be used to better global treaties, or will it only serve to increase international competition and the growing anxieties of the middle class about stability?
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