Tuesday, June 6, 2017

America First

The recent decision by President Trump to remove the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, was defended by the President, as well as his supporters, as another example of putting America first.  The specifics of that reasoning seem to center around the requirement for the nations of the developed world to offset the costs of nations in the undeveloped world as they switch from cheaper, but dirtier forms of energy to cleaner but less cost effective methods, as well as the short term cost to the United States for doing the same.  

Strictly speaking, there is logic to such assertions.  Why should the tax payers of Pittsburgh or Des Moines foot the bill for foreign nations to change their energy strategy?  Even more pointedly, why should Americans risk an improving economy by committing to future emission reductions which will harm the existing energy industry, possibly resulting in lost jobs and higher energy costs?

Why indeed?

Perhaps the answer lies in the basis of an America first policy.  Certainly, maintaining the status quo in terms of carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses relieves us from the pressure of thinking about the possible consequences of such actions.  While defending the status quo is not generally a rallying cry for a populist movement, such as the one which resulted in Trump's election, it is certainly easily justifiable if one assumes change will be disruptive.  When America First translates into going it alone, without the cooperation of other countries, then there is very little reason to engage in any cooperative enterprise because cooperation with others necessitates compromise.  

This mantra should not be surprising as we try to understand our President's logic; time after time during the campaign and since his inauguration, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he alone could fix our problems.  It is reflected in his comments about the Middle East situation being not that hard to resolve, in his comments about how surprised he was that health care is so complicated, and even his admission that being president is much harder that he thought.  When one is used to making a decision then having zero negative feedback on its merits, when one is used to working with people whose only goal is to tell you how wonderful you and your ideas are, when one is able to fall back on unbalanced tax laws that enable you to write off your mistakes while raking in as much as possible when successful,  America First is just an extension of Donald Trump first.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that this decision is unwise.  The real question is, does reducing greenhouse gasses by moving away from fossil fuels to more greener energy sources, put America first?  

If you believe that climate change is the biggest challenge facing America, and the world, then any program that reduces our carbon emissions places the short and long term interests of America first. Put another way, the costs of doing nothing far outweigh the cost of working gradually, so that short term expenses can be spread out over time and be less intrusive.  What seems ironic to me is that even if you believe that the rising temperature of the earth is natural, part of a cycle beyond the capacity of man to influence, it is still true that the earth is warming.  Again then, wouldn't a plan which helps to minimize the effects of such warming, flooding of coastal cities, changing weather patterns, alterations of growing seasons, etc, place America First?  

Pulling out of the Paris agreement and then proposing a more specifics driven plan to address the changing climate in a way that will be the most beneficial for America and her citizens might be unpopular abroad but, perhaps acceptable to those of us who believe a strategy is required.  But pretending that there is no future cost for our delays, or worse, that the science is not in yet, smacks more of a strategy aimed at rewarding the fossil fuel industry for its campaign donations.  

But there is more to this America First philosophy that troubles me.  Clearly the name itself, America First, is hard to counter.  Why wouldn't we want to place America First?  Of course, actually placing America First and just talking about it are two different things, but perhaps it is the ease at which the America First doctrine is accepted that is the real danger.

History, even recent history in the form of the Patriot Act, teaches us that too large a percentage of the population judges a program or policy based on its name, not its content.  The fact that the Patriot Act, among other things, authorized the interception and accumulation of emails, telephone calls, and other forms of communications of the American people by the government was buried in the vast number of pages of that law.  Perhaps justified in our war on terrorism, but buried nonetheless so as not to glaringly contradict the name of the act.  Had it been called the Advanced Surveillance Act of American Citizens it may not have garnered as much support!

As those born in the early 20th century continue to pass from our lives, we are being inundated with a lot of articles about this "greatest generation" who were called upon to suffer not only the horrible days of the Great Depression, but to actively fight (and die) in the world wide effort to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.  One might argue that they placed America First, if we surmise that they knew that should Europe fall, so then might the United States.  But we call them the greatest generation because they accepted the sacrifices demanded, to save all of humanity; it wasn't in answer to cries of America First that inspired the millions of young men and women to serve in WW2.

America First feeds from the hubris that only America can solve the problems of the world, just as it feeds from the hubris that President Trump knows more about wars than the generals.  Sadly, once the American people fully internalize such a belief, it is easy to appeal to the more damaging concepts of isolationism, nationalism, xenophobia, and outright prejudice against anything not American.

What is truly unfortunate is that we have seen this play before.  It was rampant nationalism that helped fuel the two World Wars.  But it was nations cooperating which produced the defeat of those who, at the time, rallied to one man's views on the superiority of the Aryan race, the greatness of the Fatherland, and the importance of ridding the earth of those he found inferior.

The Paris Climate Accord was not a perfect document, as few, if any documents are that are signed by as varied a group as was represented by the 195 signatories.  But, it is perhaps the first document whose sole aim is to provide an agreed upon set of guidelines for combating a problem that threatens the entire planet.  The first Earth First document, one might say.  

It can be said that the greatest generation understood the challenge, understood the short term costs and sacrifices needed to overcome that challenge, and still rushed headlong into the fray.  I hope that our backwards slide to a more selfish perspective is brief and someday, hopefully soon, the next greatest generation will emerge, a generation able to understand and dismiss the limits of America First, and embrace a larger viewpoint that puts Earth First.                 

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