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Emmons: American 'exceptionalism' and environmental policy

Published October 18, 2013 3:04 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A recent Gallup poll indicates that about 80 percent of Americans believe that "because of United States history and its Constitution … the U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world."

If you split it up by political party affiliation, then 73 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of those identifying as Independents, and 91 percent of Republicans surveyed agree that the United States is "the greatest country in the world" because of its unique history and Constitution, generally defined.

Related to this idea is another Gallup poll regarding whether the United States has a responsibility "to be the leading nation in world affairs." Approximately 66 percent of Americans agree that the United States carries this responsibility.

Again, along party lines, that is 61 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of identifying Independents, and 73 percent of Republicans concur that the U.S. should be "the" leading nation in global affairs, also generally defined.

Because a majority of Americans feel that the United States has a "unique character" making it "the greatest country in the world" and should be "the leading nation in world affairs," there may be a lot of potential for policymakers to capitalize on these perceptions. While it is important to address economic and social concerns, it is prudent to realize the role of sound environmental policy in economic development and social equality and justice.

In all honesty, the U.S. does play a very important role in global affairs and has the potential to be exceptional. Despite domestic concerns, the U.S. regularly comments on international human rights violations, the development and implementation of democracy, and global security.

Unfortunately the U.S. contributes little to discussions in international environmental policy, even though environmental policy is domestic and international policy. Specifically, addressing climate change requires real discussion at the international and national levels.

Policies that are enacted domestically have international implications because pollutants do not just remain in the air and the water where they are released. As a result, environmental concerns easily can be considered international issues.

It is said that U.S. involvement is required for constructive international environmental policy to be viable. If this is true, and it most likely is, depending on the environmental issue under debate, then there are enormous opportunities for the U.S. to take the lead and to take the steps necessary to become environmentally exceptional.

The access to vast natural resources within its borders provides a unique rationale and interest for taking leadership in international negotiations regarding environmental issues.

What we have succeeded in doing in Montreal is what we have failed at doing in Kyoto and Copenhagen. American influence and power can be used internationally to accomplish very important environmental missions.

Despite the massive infrastructure changes that may be necessary to address climate change, the U.S. is uniquely positioned to become a major world leader in the development and implementation of international and domestic environmental policy.

Nichlas Emmons teaches in the Utah State University Department of Environment and Society.