Now Is Not The Time to Stop Hoping

I've been abroad for almost seven months, and today I stopped to look around. I found myself in Paris, surrounded by many suspiciously friendly French people. Take this fact lightly—I do speak French and I started with low expectations—but it is incontestable that my current experience has been sprinkled with encounters where I've pronounced my status as an American and have not been met by an expression of horror on the other person's face. Why the sudden acceptance by a people that many recount as the most unwelcoming to foreigners in Europe?I would say it has a lot to do with our current image. Le Monde, a Parisian newspaper, did a survey in October 2008 asking the French who they would prefer as the next leader of the United States. Over 93 percent surveyed reported a desire to see Barack Obama in office. Now, four months after his election, while some reporters announce the end of Obama's honeymoon with the American people, the rest of the world continues to wax optimistically about the possibilities of, dare I say it, a well-guided America. Despite predictions that our country and the Obama administration may be reaching a point where we and they will need to decide what our priorities are, the sentiment abroad leads me to think that maybe we can do it all—and that the world will support our deficit while we are in transition. Not that this support will come without strings. Obama is expected, nay, prophesied to bring the world out of the current economic crisis and into a post-depression phase of prosperity and bliss. But for now what this means is that we may have carte blanche to "change the world" (world willing). Take, for example, climate change. Many scholars and officials, notably Hubert Védrine, a former French Minister of External Affairs, have labeled Bush's policies (or lack thereof) and refusal to sign the Kyoto Accord as one of the worst setbacks to fighting global warming since the project's inception. Despite the intervention in Iraq, America still has credibility as a global leader. The lack of American support and effort toward this international problem has a devastating effect on its efficacy and the level of other nations' commitments. The European Union has taken the lead in this area as the first "country" to take a stance and start making serious steps toward reducing their greenhouse gas emissions after 1990. Their current goal is to cut emissions back to 20 percent below what they were in 1990 by 2020—an effort supported by a cap-and-trade market among the 27 member states (a system is which the allowed yearly emissions are set for certain sectors and allowances for tons of pollution must be bought and traded among businesses as needed at market prices). The EU has stated its intention to raise this goal to 30 percent if met with comparable efforts by other developed countries at the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2009. These efforts need to include the US. Not just because we are now the second largest emitter after China, but also because, with the urgency of the issue and the scope of our economy and influence, it would be irresponsible not to—a metaphorical equivalent of trashing your apartment with a party you threw, and then making your roommate clean it up alone because she was there for an hour. Obama's current plan regarding these emissions is to reduce them to 1990 levels by 2020, and then to augment that to 80 percent below those levels by 2050. This goal may be somewhat less than ambitious compared with what the EU is offering, but it could turn out that neither plan reaches fruition. Democrats are reporting that with the economic crisis, bills targeted at energy reforms before Copenhagen could be shelved until further notice. Even with Secretary of State Clinton pushing climate concerns as a major requisite of her relations with other countries, they may fall from the forefront until other crises have settled. With the lack of a gesture showing a credible American effort, there's a decent chance that the international agreement on the post-Kyoto international climate change framework could be less than ambitious as well. An alternate scenario could be that climate change remains a vital part of Obama's agenda, which is, I acknowledge, astonishingly stuffed with tasks that must be achieved quickly— following a timeline where all deadlines seem to be marked as "yesterday." The US could commit to creating a cap-and-trade system like the EU or an emissions tax (either solution is better than none), and thus regain the credibility necessary to push forward these negotiations. This work would likely lead to a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is the step the world is still expecting. So what I would say to journalists reporting a fatigue of options for any plans that are not financial is that the world already knows that we are in a ridiculous amount of debt, so adding to our deficit with the goal of improving our policies (and the world) is a step that the people of other countries could readily support—even, I would bet, China, which already holds more US debt than we could currently repay. Countries, like companies, fail not strictly because they run out of money, but because people and lenders stop believing in their ability to repay the loans they have received and to recover. If we want to retain this faith in our abilities—which, I stress, is currently abundant—then now is not the time to doubt. It is always the time to question our policies, but now we need to do so with the expectation that the decided solution will succeed. Sometimes, you have to spend money to make money. The only way to crawl out of the hole in which we find ourselves is not to neglect our people and the world, but to invest in them and realistically expect the good returns to come.