South Of The Border, A Chance To Prove American Exceptionalism By Climate Leadership

Adorable, no?

Whether you think of it as a meaningless political catchphrase or a legitimate ideal, ‘American exceptionalism’ is a hot topic now. I’ll wait over here while you fight about it.


Well, With almost 200 nations convening in Cancun this week for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to talk once more about how they can tackle the planet’s carbon problem, it’s time to discuss it again…both because we, Americans, have such an important part to play in the conference and because, all too often, we get the idea of being exceptional all wrong.

New York Times:

“Continuing the Kyoto Protocol only makes sense if major economies which are not part of it like the U.S., China and India also make further commitments,” said Artur Runge-Metzger, a senior European Union negotiator.


“The EU is ready to agree on an ambitious global climate framework in Cancun, but regrettably some other major economies are not,” she said. “No new legislation unfortunately came out of the American Senate.”

“Cancun can nevertheless take the world a significant step forward by agreeing on a balanced set of decisions covering many key issues,” she added. “It is crucial that Cancun delivers this progress, otherwise the U.N. climate change process risks losing momentum and relevance.”

Even members of Congress aren’t all that interested in the conference, just as they have been regrettably absent on most climate matters in recent years. As Lisa Friedman, Evan Lehmann and Jean Chemnick write for ClimateWire (subscription required), “[t]he apathy is palpable.” The Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of the year, which means there’s not much time left for major carbon polluters (namely the U.S. and China) to take real, substantial steps to cut their emissions—thus greatly improving the chances that other supporters will extend the agreement or forge a new, stronger one. Right now, in many ways, the U.S. is both the elephant in the room and one of the few stakeholders still shying away from the table.

The Cancun conference, much like previous international climate meetings, illustrates one problem with our collective identity pretty well. Lost in all the talk about what makes America special is the fact that exceptionalism cuts both ways, or it ought to—and  it’s not the same thing as American exemption.

Exceptionalism once implied that we were unique by deed rather than exempt from responsibility by cultural birthright. We were seen as thought leaders, moral leaders, social leaders—forward as only America can be. We earned credit for being the boldest, brightest and most virtuous nation rather than claiming it by fiat.

Another year, another opportunity to prove just how exceptional we are. This time, let’s hope we do it the right way.