Serving Environmentalism on Styrofoam Plates

Columnist Sam Koch
Posted on Wednesday 12th August 2009

The press conference held in New Delhi a few weeks ago with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh reminded me a bit of fourth grade.

When I was ten years old, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Harrison, began a month-long unit on the environment. The PTA threw a party to celebrate our environmental know-how, but the party snacks were served on Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils. As the trash can in our classroom began to fill up, I rushed to Mrs. Harrison and begged for an explanation.

Mrs. Harrison, irked by my questions, quipped that these were the cheapest and most efficient party-planning materials. Much like the PTA parents, the U.S. showed up in New Delhi celebrating environmentalism…while toting their metaphorical plastic tableware.

Clinton claimed that “addressing climate change and achieving economic growth, in our view, are compatible goals.” Clinton also claimed that India was poised to benefit from environmental policies: “India is a country very vulnerable to climate change. But it is also a country most likely to benefit from clean energy policies that are key to economic sustainability in the 21st century.”

Ramesh, though, disagreed. “India’s position is that we are simply not in a position to take on legally binding emissions reduction targets.” Apparently India didn’t get the memo: this was supposed to be the public unveiling of a united front against climate change.

Ramesh’s statement reveals a serious weakness in the American fight to bring its less-developed neighbors into the war against melting ice caps: hypocrisy.

During the Industrial Revolution, when the United States and Great Britain were rushing towards economic dominance, they gave very little concern—let alone sanctions—to the environmental impact of production methods. Industrialized nations like the U.S. achieved prominence through the mentality that they could destroy now and repair later.

Now that the U.S. is a post-industrial nation, less-industrialized countries like India and China aren’t too thrilled with having their route to economic prosperity cluttered with emissions standards and LEED-certified building requirements.

Like many other pieces of “green” legislation, the provisions and goals allotted in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454) are exceedingly important. The bill underestimates the significance of developing nations’ economic concerns, though. Adding costs to production or importing goods hurts countries that are trying to catch up to the United States in terms of technology and production goals, particularly in a struggling global market.

The United States and other wealthy nations have the international stature to impose costly environmental sanctions on everybody else. Until these well-developed nations follow their own rules and regulations fully, however, they will face accusations of hypocrisy and growing resentment from countries deciding whether to embrace these policies. An insincere environmental policy may seem like an attempt to hamper industrial development and maintain existing political power structures, rather than a genuine attempt to rectify climate change.

We cannot preach environmentalism while serving cake on Styrofoam plates. By acting fully on the measures contained in H.R. 2454 while also encouraging stronger economic relationships with developing nations, the U.S. will be better able to achieve cooperation on global environmental policies.

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