climate change

Opinion: The American Dream can make or break the US’s ability to confront the climate crisis

The Statue of Liberty. Photo credit: GaMeRuInEr via Wikimedia.

By Anders Lorenzen

The US was built on ingenuity and entrepreneurship leading to unprecedented economic growth, and from that process came the idea of the American Dream. The idea that anyone no matter their social standing, wealth or level of education could rise to the top. Many outsiders still laugh at that idea and point out that the US is one of the most unequal countries in the world where unregulated capitalism oppresses people. But still, Americans hold on to the absurdity (idea) of the American Dream, despite some arguments that it is an illusion, and it is precisely the American Dream which is holding the country back.

And when it comes to how the country should tackle the climate crisis the ideas that founded the US and the idea of the American Dream is the centrepiece. 

A world leader in everything

The idea that the US has of itself is that it has always been superior, it has to be a world leader in everything, and that growth and technology will always save the day. Nowhere else, other than in the US, is the notion dominant that we can always just innovate our way out of any crisis. 

Other progressive nations are discussing not only building the tech for the future but also recognizing that there is also a need for limitations. The response to the climate crisis should not just be more growth, but in many cases, there should be a limit to growth and a recognition that many of the things we do today we have to do less of. That means for example eating less red meat, taking fewer flights and other high-carbon travelling, and consuming less generally.

The American Dream and the climate crisis

The challenge with hanging on to the American Dream is that to deal with the climate crisis you have to tell Americans there’s stuff they can’t continue to have and to do, which they see as an infringement of their liberty. That’s why you saw the Biden Administration`s Special Envoy for Climate Change, John Kerry, saying on British TV that Americans do not need to cut their meat intake or consumption levels to tackle the climate crisis. He said we just have to innovate to cut emissions from the agriculture sector, and that 50% of other cuts will be backed by technologies we don’t yet have and for which there is no scientific backing. 

In the US, the land of the car, no US administration would say that Americans should drive less or drive smaller cars so road space is used more efficiently. Instead, the argument is that we should just build cleaner cars. There is not the same notion of getting cars off the roads altogether or investing in more train travel or getting more people walking and cycling as there is now in many places in Europe, for instance. 

Saying no to fossil fuels is hard to do

Saying no to fossil fuels is also difficult for any US Administration, even during the Obama years when he listed tackling climate change as one of his most important priorities. He encouraged investment in clean energy and did set out policy changes that allowed that, but he also lauded all of the above energy strategies which did not close the door for other harmful energy sources, and he even spoke up for clean coal.

But climate advocates, scientists and policy-makers around the world broadly agree that acting on climate change can’t just be bound up with growth strategies. We have to consume less when it comes to food, travelling and material consumption, and we have to give space back to nature, which means rewilding more land. This means policies must be introduced to make it more expensive to indulge in high-carbon travelling, eating and consumption. And to make space for nature the country has to produce much less meat and stop road expansion to make space for new protected areas. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has several times warned that if any person on the planet had the same consumption habits as the average American we would need three planets to support humanity.

Where the American dream could help

But having said all that the American Dream does have one possible silver lining; competition. This current administration is right that they do have to ramp up investments in clean energy and innovation. The ideology of the American Dream means that the US’s response to climate change is that they want to be a world leader in clean energy, and this will see them compete primarily with China but also the European Union and India to become a global clean energy superpower. 

When it comes to the clean energy economy, competition is a good thing and it should accelerate the US’s adoption of clean energy. We have seen the results already in a relatively short time, that while waiting for Europe and China and many other places in Asia to get ahead in offshore wind, the US is now finally playing the game with the Biden Administration having launched an ambitious offshore wind strategy. And a pipeline of offshore wind projects is set to be accelerated.    

But if the US truly wants to be a leader in tackling climate change they must take a double-approach, it can’t just be through growth, though growth and innovation are needed in the right industries such as the clean energy industry. But they must also once and for all say goodbye to fossil fuels. There is no plausible case for approving new fossil fuel projects as the Biden Administration has been doing. And policy must include limiting as well making high-carbon activities much more expensive, and the country must rapidly reform their agriculture sector to one that farms a lot less meat.

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