Your Smog Is Our Smog

I didn’t fully realize until I arrived in Peru how closely people from outside the U.S. follow our internal politics.  Peru has about as lively a political scene as you’ll find anywhere, but headlines from the States often hog the front pages of this country’s major newspapers. And this complete inundation with all things America shows. Many Peruvians, after they learn I’m from the U.S., will begin peppering me with questions. “What do you think of (insert American political figure here)’s decision to (insert often obscure policy move here)?” I’ve been left stumped by these on more than one occasion.

But what I haven’t fully understood until recently is why? What makes us so interesting when there’s so much going on elsewhere in the world? A recent conversation with a Peruvian friend gave me an idea.

“Did you hear what Obama did today?” he asked, as we stood outside a bar getting some fresh air. I said that I hadn’t.

“He lifted the U.S. smog regulations,” he said. “That smog is going to come down here. We don’t want to breathe that. Why did he do it?”

This highlighted a pattern for me. People citing an American policy with implications on their own lives, and looking for insight on why it happened. In this case, my attempts to explain the administration’s move only heightened the confusion. I tried to relate the complexities of American politics. How the bitter divisions within our two-party system sometimes lead to policy compromises that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It was an unsatisfying answer, mainly because the stakes (i.e. the air we breathe) were too high to explain away as mere partisan bickering.

You see, the cultural, military and economic behemoth that is America is frightening to much of the world, and it’s a fear that comes from the unknown. People from outside the U.S. know all about what we’re doing, they just have no idea why we’re doing it. They gape in horror as our leaders bring the country to the brink of defaulting on its debt, with untold consequences to the global economy.  They look on in exasperation as our politicians debate not what to do about anthropogenic climate change (of which the U.S. is a leading contributor) but whether the phenomenon accepted by an overwhelming majority of climatologists actually exists. If the partisan gridlock amid a host of problems in Washington is bewildering to you, imagine what it must look like from the outside looking in. It’d all be an interesting sideshow if only the U.S. wasn’t such a mammoth globally. When one country accounts for over a quarter of global economic activity, the effects of even small policy changes — or lack thereof — can ripple throughout the globe.

And I’m slowly beginning to realize what that must feel like for the rest of the world. Imagine you’re sitting in Sweden. Your country represents a mere blip on the map, but is making dramatic efforts to curb carbon emissions. People drive less, walk and bike more, and businesses share part of the sacrifice by buying and trading carbon credits. You yourself have likely sacrificed creature comforts for the ultimate good of humanity. But after all this effort, none of it really matters, because politicians in the U.S. are unwilling or unable to enact even modest carbon-cutting legislation. It’s the “Tragedy of the Commons” argument squared. You might do your own small part to avoid polluting, but if the factory next door is spewing chemicals into the air and water, your efforts are in vain.

And I imagine the worst part of it all is the lack of at least some sense of control. In the U.S., we can at least vent our frustrations with our elected leaders at the voting booth. People elsewhere can only look on in horror as we ravage the climate and bring the global financial system to the brink of calamity through partisan infighting.

But there are shreds of hope. The current administration has taken a policy of engagement with the world that runs counter to the dark isolationist days of the early 2000′s. There at least seems to be a growing consensus that the many problems facing the world today require global solutions, and the need for the world’s sole remaining superpower to play a role in those solutions. But, in many cases — climate change, endemic poverty, and the financial crisis included — I don’t think we’ve gone far enough. You won’t find many political opinions on this blog, but I will say this: If we’re going to solve the world’s problems — and we can solve them — leaders in the U.S. need to acknowledge that their problems are the world’s problems. That their smog is the world’s smog. And once knowing that, to end the squabbling and act accordingly.

4 thoughts on “Your Smog Is Our Smog

  1. Just to complement the last lines of your article: not only leaders in the US need to acknowledge that their problems are the world’s problems but also the US society (at electing their leaders), because most of the world population think that US population dont know that there’s a world that exists outside the borders of their country.

    By the way, do you think most of the US society think the world is like this?:
    http://interacc.typepad.com/.a/6a01053596fb28970c0120a5c4754f970c-pi
    (this is what the rest of the planet think that US citizens think/know about the rest of the world)

    Considering that Peru is the 3rd most affected country by climate change after Bangladesh and Honduras (Peru has already suffered a 25 per cent reduction in water supplies over the past 30 years, and our perpetual snow-capped mountains are quickly melting), decisions taken by the US government about this matter are extremely important to us.

    But…even if the government of your country begins to make efforts to curb carbon emissions, I don’t think China gives a damn about it, and they will keep polluting the world.

  2. Now, after pressing the “Post” button in my first comment, I wonder: if China is such an important (and polluting) country, why we doesnt know anything about that country, or why its news and policies are not as important as the ones from the US?

  3. Thank you for the blog post that should be on some sort of ‘required reading’ list somewhere. And I appreciate your optimism that problems can be solved. However, and maybe your next post may illuminate this, to many believe that the ‘problems’ with climate change can be solved with adaptation instead of a true solution.
    Personally I believe we are too close to those tipping points that make a return to the climate of our most recent generations impossible. My grandchildren will not know the climate that I grew up with. But many believe that we can ‘adapt’ to the effects of the problems that we created for ourselves. And in this dream of adaptation, there is a loss of urgency for actually fixing the problem before us. I hope that the rest of the world holds the US accountable for the their costs of ‘adaptation’, as it seems that the threat of the all mighty dollar will be all politicians react to.

    • Hi Tom,

      I agree that we’re well past the point of no return on climate change. Category 3 hurricanes are hitting New England, glaciers are melting away at a record pace, and Texas is literally on fire. If these are any indication of things to come, we’re in for a wild ride this century.

      The important thing now, as you know, is to stop things before they get to civilization-threatening levels. To avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable, as scientists like to say. That takes a two-pronged approach: adapting to our existing threats while taking steps to stop them from becoming even worse. I’m curious to know what you think the appropriate course of action is. I think a system of cap and trade like Congress enacted last year would certainly help. We also need to double down on innovation and come up with a cheaper source of energy that makes fossil fuels irrelevant. Bill Gates laid out a course like that at his talk to the TED conference last year. http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

      Thanks for reading, Tom. I hope to write more about climate change — particularly how it affects people in “third world” countries like Peru — more in the weeks ahead.

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