01/14/2011 04:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is the U.S. Really Bad for Global Warming?

This country has received a great deal of bad press worldwide for foot-dragging on climate change treaties and energy efficiency. Mixed though it is, the U.S. record is far better in practice than that of most other countries.

This country is part of the solution as well as part of the problem. Indeed, if the rest of the world did as well, there might not even be a global warming problem.

Why the disconnect between what one reads in the press and reality? The focus has been almost exclusively on carbon output from burning fossil fuels. We need to also examine the other side of the ledger, the carbon that is getting sucked out of the air by forests and other healthy ecosystems. So far, journalists, climate control experts, and politicians have paid very little attention to carbon absorption and focused their attention almost exclusively on carbon emissions and the oil guzzling habits of Americans.

Thanks to healthy natural ecosystems, America is a carbon sink helping to redress global warming. Conversely, Europe's forests were substantially damaged by acid rain with a quarter of the trees losing a quarter of their leaves. Even if the Europeans are belatedly reducing their carbon emissions under company-level legislation, they are very far from carbon neutrality. (A recent scientific report making just this claim did so by including huge sparsely populated Asian grasslands and Siberian forests on the tortured premise that all are part of the same "ecological system," [1]).

The U.S. record on environmentalism

When people in other countries think of U.S. environmental policies, they think of President Reagan ripping out the White House's solar panels installed by Carter. Reagan wanted to preserve the illusion that this is a country of boundless resources and limitless opportunities in which the concept of conserving energy is anathema. They are mindful of our failure to heed Carter's warning that we would become excessively dependent on foreign oil -- a mistake that has been paid for in blood in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then there is a lamentable history of politicians toadying to oil companies to keep fuel consumption as high as possible. Car companies have also succeeded in blocking the implementation of tighter fuel efficiency standards for cars.

Despite the mean-mindedness and stupidity of recent decades, the environmentalist movement began here and first gained political traction under President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's environmentalist motives were distinctly of his period. He believed that if you enjoy shooting wild animals, you had better make sure to protect the land on which they live.

"I hate a man who skins the land." Roosevelt was wont to say. Men who skinned the land had their way with the extensive forests of Appalachia. The results were grim. Clear-cutting completely denuded the land of trees. No longer absorbed by trees, rainwater ran straight down the bare hillsides resulting in catastrophic flooding, in 1907, in which scores of people died.

This tragedy galvanized environmental activists and gave impetus to the national parks movement. Funded by charitable contributions and philanthropic donations huge tracts of land were set aside from commercial uses and dedicated to recreation and conservation. National parks, state parks, and other preserved wilderness areas constitute a huge achievement that is unfortunately rare around the world.

These efforts not only gave us pristine wilderness areas but played an important role in trapping carbon from the air. Clean Air and Clean Water acts beginning in 1970 also set a precedent and have scored many successes, including reduction of acid rain.

The science of carbon sinks is in its infancy. A controversial Science study, published in 1998, concluded that the carbon sink was capable of absorbing all of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels in this country [2]. Other researchers published smaller estimates.

Whatever the precise effect, it is of great potential importance for global warming. Moreover, the most important single components of the North American carbon sink is the eastern forests [3], the very habitat that has been most helped by wilderness preservation.

However sketchy our recent history has been, American environmental actions have made an unprecedented, contribution to carbon abatement by protecting habitat. This approach seems to work. In exaggerating the badness of America's environmental record, critics run the risk of also downplaying what is perhaps the best hope of addressing global warming.


1. European Commission (2009). Integrated assessment of the European and North Atlantic carbon balance. Brussels: Directorate-General for Research, FP6 Global Change and Ecosystems.
2. Fan, S. et al. (1998). A large terrestrial sink in terrestrial North America implied by atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide data and models. Science, 282, 442-446.
3. Peters W. (2007). An atmospheric perspective on North American carbon dioxide exchange: Carbon Tracker. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 18925-18930.