Robert Paarlberg talks about American exceptionalism, combating climate change

Illustration by James Heimer

Illustration by James Heimer

Stars, Stripes and Sea Level Rise

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

Your book is titled The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism. What is “American Exceptionalism”?

RP: It’s the assertion that America is very different from other advanced industrial countries because of our unique history as a nation of immigrants, protected from outside influences by the [Atlantic] Ocean and Pacific Ocean—our Anglo-Protestant heritage that evolved in a unique direction. 

Many people say the United States is so different because we provide our citizens with a more vibrant economy, with much more political freedom. We’re far more diverse in terms of ethnicity. We’re far more optimistic. We believe more in science and technology; we’re more religious. We really are different in many of those regards. 

What I’m doing in my book is showing that there’s a downside to our differences. We do provide more personal freedom. But we also have a much higher rate of violent crime, and more gun crime in particular, and the largest per capita prison population in the industrial world. We do have a more dynamic economy, but many people are left behind. We have the highest rate of child poverty in the industrial world, and the highest rate of homelessness. 

What I say is that our high rate of obesity and our high per capita greenhouse gas emissions, these are just two more aspects of America’s difference—America’s exceptionalism—that we really shouldn’t be that proud of. 

You write that Americans “tend to be more individualistic, less welcoming toward state authority, more trusting of free markets, and far more religious or moralistic. They are also more optimistic about using science and technology to improve their lives. Taken together, these cultural traits heighten the tendency of Americans tooverconsume both food and fuel, and help frustrate public policy efforts to impose restraint.” Is there any way in which these traits are going to help us?

RP: You know, you would think that they might. We are much more optimistic [than people in other countries] about what science and technology can provide. … I would like to see much more government investment in low-carbon energy options, and I’m a little surprised that we’re not getting it. ... If we took climate change seriously, we'd be investing much more in low carbon energy research than we are.

You document that while Americans believe more strongly that innovation and science will save us, “the strongest source of climate science denial in America is not culture at all, but a disinformation campaign financed by the fossil fuel industry, based on the hope that if the science can be challenged, new taxes and regulations will be avoided.” Europe and Japan don’t have those kinds of lobbies. Given that we do, how are we going to change our priorities?

RP: Right. Everyone says, “Why don’t Americans believe in climate change while Europeans do?” and the most obvious explanation isn’t that we ignore science. Americans actually take science more seriously than Europeans. The clear explanation is that only in the United States do we have a large fossil fuel industry, and you have a carbon disinformation campaign funded by an industry that has confused Americans about whether there is or is not scientific consensus. The one hope that I hold out is a division inside the fossil fuel industry between oil and gas on the one hand, and coal on the other. 

You say in the book of mitigation advocates, “The most they have been able to win from the federal government are weak or even sham measures, based only on public exhortation, voluntarism, or subsidies designed to buy (or rent) a few mitigating behaviors at the margin. Weak half-measures of this kind are doubly dangerous, because they can create a complacent status quo.” 

RP: The advocates for mitigation have, till now, I think, been so focused on mitigation... they’ve left themselves vulnerable to criticism when the mitigation hasn’t occurred. ... There’s a point at which mitigation advocates reduce their own credibility if they say, “No, we don’t want to switch from coal to natural gas power generation. Fossil fuel is fossil fuel, and it all has to stay in the ground.” I think that’s a position that’s not going to be persuasive politically in the United States, and what I fear is that if we go for the first-best option, and if we’re not open to second-best options by using natural gas as a transition, we won’t get any mitigation at all—and then adaption starts to look like the only answer. 

You also outline that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report struggled to find hard-hitting impacts that might shake Americans out of our slumber.

RP: It’s quite surprising. The United States is far less vulnerable to climate change than most other industrial countries, and far less vulnerable than poor countries of the tropics. Climate change will lead to sea level rise, and that will do damage to the United States. But the United States doesn’t have as many people living in low elevation coastal zones compared to Europe … and [America is] dramatically less vulnerable than poor countries like Bangladesh. 

Climate change will place parts of U.S. agriculture under stress. But U.S. agriculture is only one or two percent of our gross domestic product. That doesn’t threaten us nearly as much as it would threaten agriculture in other [places]—in Africa, for example. And then, as a Northern Hemisphere country, parts of U.S. agriculture could actually benefit from warming from a longer growing season. … And climate change could increase rainfall in certain areas and actually raise yields for non-irrigated farming. That’s one of the surprising findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Meanwhile, farmers in India, Pakistan and Africa will suffer intense hardship from higher temperatures and from more extreme drought. 

And so, they don’t have the adaption options that the U.S. seems to have, at least in the short run. That’s one of the reasons I’m afraid of the adaptation option. We will be able to still protect ourselves for a while, but if we pivot away from mitigation to adaptation, it’s going to accelerate the pace of climate change—damaging climate change—for others that don’t have the same self-protection options.  

You write, “Given this relatively low exposure to risk, plus the nation’s unmatched material wealth, America will find self-protective adaptation to climate change a tempting policy option.” Is there any part of you, after your research, that cynically thinks that some business interests view not mitigating climate change as a mid-term play for a win?

RP: I look what happened after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and it’s quite revealing. The Congress, without very much debate at all, immediately enacted a $50 billion supplemental appropriation to rebuild the Jersey Shore, and to do so with greater resilience ... infrastructure that could stand up to the next storm. And why was this so popular? ... Why are we spending so much money to get ready for the next storm, instead of starting to make adjustments to prevent the next storm? Where was the money spent? Well, it was spent locally, in local congressional districts: Damaged homes were repaired. New infrastructure was set in place—elevated highways, new power facilities. Hospitals that will be more resilient if the power fails. These were very expensive investments that went to the private sector. Private construction firms got the money. Local districts got the jobs. 

This is the way that American politics operates. ... Bringing federal money back to the local congressional districts is the mother’s milk of American politics. … Congress doesn’t want to regulate anybody or tax anybody, but they’re not afraid of spending money if the money is being spent in their district. … Investments in climate resilience are going to be a new form of pork barrel spending.

Author Robert Paarlberg is a professor at Wellesley College and associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.