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What Would Mark the End of America’s Moral Leadership in World Affairs?

President Trump pulling us out of the Paris climate agreement.

Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

In 1630, as waves buffeted the ship carrying him and his fellow Puritans across the ocean to the nascent Massachusetts Bay Colony, a lay minister named John Winthrop delivered a sermon introducing one of the most enduring tropes in American political rhetoric. In “A Model of Christian Charity,” Winthrop, the colony’s newly appointed governor, attempted to buck up his weary shipmates by likening their enterprise to “a city upon a hill”—a nod to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus observed that “[a] city set on a hill cannot be hidden” and referred to his followers as “the light of the world.”

Thus the notion of American exceptionalism was born—before America had even really gotten off the ground. Though it has certainly been distorted, misused, and misapplied many times over the centuries, this image of America as an elevated citadel, a shining beacon unto other nations, has never lost its symbolic power. Presidents and politicians from both of our major parties—John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney—regularly paid rhetorical visits to the “city upon a hill” when outlining America’s responsibilities to the rest of the world and its special status as a moral, legal, and democratic exemplar.

In late 2015, a full 385 years after Winthrop and company journeyed across the Atlantic, an equally driven group of Americans crossed it in the opposite direction, en route to Paris. There they joined representatives of 194 other nations in signing the Paris climate agreement, the most comprehensive and far-reaching international action taken yet against climate change. And even though the United States was only one of many signatories, our participation in the pact—along with China’s—carried momentous weight. (We are, after all, the top two carbon emitters on the planet.)

Not since World War II had the rest of the world so needed America to live up to its exceptional self-image: to be the shining city upon a hill that we have always aspired to be. By signing the Paris agreement, we did more than just commit ourselves to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025. We signaled to other nations—large and small, individually and collectively—that we were ready to lead: to set an example, yes, but also to help them meet their own climate goals, freely offering our guidance and assistance along the way. Had we not offered that level of leadership, the agreement would surely have fallen through, as scores of smaller countries would reasonably question why they should make sacrifices and rearrange their economies if the richest and most powerful nation in the world wasn’t willing to do so.

Holding his granddaughter, former Secretary of State John Kerry signs the Paris agreement.

Amanda Voisard, UN Photo/Flickr

But if the “shining city on a hill” remains one of our most enduring bits of political rhetoric, perhaps it is second only to this other one: Elections have consequences.

The election of Donald Trump, in particular, has already had and will continue to have enormous consequences—not only for our environment domestically but also for the larger global effort to curb carbon pollution and combat climate change. If President Trump withdraws from the Paris agreement, as swirling rumors suggest he might, he will be ushering our country into an ignoble new era: the Era of American Abdication. Any such decision would mark the day that the United States went from being a respected world leader to being just another scrambling, small-minded actor on the international stage.

So crucial is our country’s participation to the success of the Paris agreement that the mere announcement of the intent to withdraw could have devastating ripple effects, threatening the solidarity that has bound the agreement’s signatories together. This may be why at least one member of the Trump administration—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose new job entails protecting and preserving relationships with our allies (not to mention promoting global stability)—has subtly counter-signaled that sticking with our Paris commitment is in our national best interest.

Then again, Tillerson only voiced his (modest) support for the Paris agreement during his confirmation hearing, while under extensive grilling from senators who held his fate in their hands. While it would be nice to think that he and others within the new administration have the desire or the cachet to persuade their dangerously mercurial, nihilistically shortsighted boss of the importance of sticking with Paris, most accounts of the current dynamic inside the White House suggest that dysfunction reigns and that reasonableness is in short supply. Nothing that came out of Tillerson’s mouth during his confirmation hearing or afterward indicates that he would be willing to go to the mat for Paris; he only believes “it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table with the conversations around how to deal with the threats of climate change.”

That’s a very thin reed to cling to, indeed.

These three facts aren’t “alternative,” but well established:

  1. Climate change is underway and already making life miserable for millions of people.
  2. The burning of fossil fuels is causing it.
  3. The Paris climate agreement represents the best way forward for curbing these emissions to such a degree that we’ll actually have a fighting chance against climate change and its depredations.

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney might not have agreed on much, but they did believe America had a special role in the global community: to serve as a source of leadership and moral light. If we renege on our climate commitments, we won’t just be letting down all our neighbors. We’ll be letting ourselves down, too—by abandoning the solemn responsibility that was laid out for us nearly four centuries ago:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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