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Three Reasons Why America Has a Shot at Leading on Global Warming

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This Fourth of July I am thinking about three traits that define Americans at their best:  decency, reverence for facts, and confidence.  These qualities, which aren’t always on display, but are nevertheless woven into our national DNA, make me optimistic about our country rising to the challenge posed by climate change.

Decency.  While we don’t always exhibit it that way some of us might like, we are a fundamentally decent and moral people.   We show it at home (sometimes) with our embrace of individual rights and our high rates of participation in religious and community service organizations, and abroad (sometimes) with our promotion of peace and democracy.  And even today, in our highly polarized political environment, a bi-partisan sense of decency comes through sometimes, and in highly poignant ways.  Just witness how in the last ten years Americans from all stripes have moved to embrace or at least accept the rights of all men and women to marry whom they love–because it is the right thing to do.

Facts.   Ever since the days of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, America has been a scientific country, guided by facts, not superstition.  While we argue hard over science and its implications, when the facts are made clear enough, large numbers of Americans accept them—and act.  We stopped using DDT, took the lead out of gasoline, and dramatically cut our smoking rates because Americans accepted the verdict of science on these matters.   Paraphrasing Missouri’s slogan, we are a “show me” country; we can be, and often are, persuaded by the evidence.

Confidence.  We are a country of immigrants who came here with confidence that America would mean a better life for us and our children.  That confidence propelled us to take on and win great causes like ending slavery and defeating fascism.  That spirit is also found in our inventors and entrepreneurs, who have brought some of the most important inventions of the last hundred years to life, such as planes, cars, light bulbs, and computers.

What does this have to do with climate change?  These American attributes set us up to lead.  Being a decent people, we will not accept the moral consequences of leaving a severely damaged world to our children and grandchildren.   Our reverence for facts suggests that when the science of climate change is made clear to a wide audience (and we are closely reaching that moment), Americans will accept it and demand action.  And our confidence means that we will not shy away from a tough battle, but instead will lean in and make the necessary changes happen.

So how do we take advantage of these national traits?

We need to continue to tell the story of climate change in a way that tugs on Americans’ innate sense of stewardship and generational responsibility.  To put it simply, it must be seen as patriotic to acknowledge the scientific consensus, and to act upon it.   And that is exactly why UCS published a study on National Landmarks at Risk, which highlights how many of our most treasured places are threatened by global warming.

We need to give the American people the scientific information they need to make reasoned judgments, and explain it in ways that connect with people’s lives, and UCS is doing that with a series of reports that look at a wide and diverse array of impacts that are happening now.

And we need to show that the solutions are at hand, embodied in proven technologies like energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean vehicles.  That is the point of our work on clean vehicles and our work on renewables.

So yes, and I know I may be an outlier here, but on this July 4th, I am an optimist that we have the qualities we need to meet this momentous challenge.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy Tags: ,

About the author: With more than 30 years of experience in government, environmental policy, and advocacy, Ken Kimmell joined UCS as president in May 2014. Prior to joining UCS, he served as the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). As commissioner, he served as chairman of the board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), helping to prod the nine member states to reduce power plant carbon emissions by almost 50 percent through 2020, avoiding some 90 million tons of emissions in the region. See Ken's full bio.

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  • Richard Solomon

    Although I sometimes despair over the struggles involved with climate change, I agree with much of what has been written here.

    I would add one more thing: UCS and its concerned members need to be even more pro-active in advocating with elected officials on a local, state, and national level. Those officials who already are working on climate change need support and encouragement to continue their efforts. Those who are not need to be urged, cajoled, and pressured, if need be, to move in that direction.

    UCS needs to encourage its members to do more in that regard. It misses out on opportunities to suggest that its members send an email, sign a petition, etc. Its members need to show more initiative in doing this themselves and in getting family, friends, and colleagues to do likewise.

    Our country’s future is at stake. The lives of our children and grandchildren are also at risk.

    • kkimmell

      Thank you for your comment, Richard. While I am optimistic, I am not complacent, and everyone needs to step up and demand resolute and effective action now!

      Ken

      • Richard Solomon

        Thanks, Ken, for your prompt and reassuring reply. Your working with/leading UCS certainly suggests you are not complacent. My suggestion arose out of occasional frustration that the organization and/or its staff does not take more opportunities to encourage its members to write their reps in DC, state capitols, and local government.

        I have been a member for 25+ years. So, I have been pleased withand supportive of UCS in almost every respect. I offer the suggestion as constructive criticism.

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