Want to cut emissions in the US? Change the discussion
In times of war, the US government has successfully appealed to citizens' patriotism. That can work now, too.
Though discussion of climate change has been high on the domestic and international agendas, the sad truth is that little has been done to fight it.
So far, only a global recession has been shown to work when it comes to cutting emissions. As the Obama administration prepares for the Copenhagen summit, it needs a new message if it wants to convince America that we must cut carbon emissions and end oil addiction.
Since the start of the debate on policies to fight climate change, the case for lowering carbon emissions has been couched in environmental terms. If we do not act, the argument goes, the world will suffer the long-term consequences of our failure. Low-lying countries will be flooded, crops will fail, tropical diseases will spread, irreplaceable flora and fauna will face extinction, and hurricanes will get more violent. Though true, this is not the way to convince American voters that they will have to pay more to fill their cars' tanks, heat their homes, and fly.
The way to get Americans to take action? Appeal to their patriotism.
Historically in times of war, the US government has successfully gotten citizens to join the armed forces, to buy war bonds, and to accept rationing by appealing to their patriotism.
The Obama administration should begin by asking Americans to curb their oil use. Fighting global warming entails curtailing oil consumption. Given the location of the world's petroleum reserves, when Americans pull out their credit cards at the gas pump or pay for their heating fuel, they indirectly fund Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear and missile programs, enrich Muammar Qaddafi (while he rants at the UN against the United States, and give assistance to Vladimir Putin as he threatens American interests in the Caucasus and Central Europe.
Other beneficiaries of American oil imports include Hugo Chávez's Venezuela and Ahmad al-Bashir's Sudan – not to mention Al Qaeda, whose financial backers include many who would be penniless were it not for fossil fuels exports. At the very least, without their petroleum exports all these countries would be far weaker.
Even if the oil sold in the US comes from Alaska, Texas, or allies like Norway, American demand drives up the price of the commodity, thereby pumping huge flows of dollars into the treasuries of its enemies.
On the other hand, when the US invests in alternative energy sources and energy conservation, it helps spur technological innovation in America and other advanced liberal democracies.
A "post-oil" world is one where the major winners will include California's high-tech industries, Japan's battery manufacturers, and German solar panel companies, while the losers will be the oil exporting autocracies of the Middle East and Russia.
Refocusing the climate debate would significantly increase the chances of success. If Americans start thinking about their dependence on oil as equivalent to providing assistance to Iran, Venezuela, and Libya, more citizens will be open to looking for and practicing alternatives.
The public needs to understand that global warming policy – and its attendant sacrifices – are less about protecting the polar bear, and more about protecting the American people from losing economic boosts to foes that thrive on our oil exports.
Obviously, this does not mean abandoning the environmental arguments. There are now millions of American voters who care passionately about them. But adding this patriotic angle will help convince others, who for one reason or another are currently unconcerned by global warming, that the government must do something to cut down oil consumption.
Another advantage to this strategy is that the president could strengthen his soft image – especially among conservatives – by waging a "war" to bankrupt oil tyrants. Such declarations might displease Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, there is little they will be able to do given their dependence on the US.
Americans have built up such a dependence on oil that appealing to environmentalists alone isn't cutting it. Appealing to the patriotism of all Americans has worked in the past; it will work again now. An international economy where oil loses its luster will be far better for the US. It will help the environment and make the US safer.