Three seemingly unrelated events have converged in recent weeks to drive home a poignant message about the cost of hypocrisy to America’s global leadership.
This time last week, Secretary of State John Kerry found himself in the spotlight of a major world conflict. The deposed Ukrainian president had just fled into the arms of his Russian sponsors amidst of discoveries of corruption and lavish personal consumption. With the fledgling new government in Kiev encountering vocal opposition from Ukraine’s pro-Russian minority, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, beginning what has begun to bear all the signs of thuggish land annexation not seen since the days of the postwar Soviet Union, or even the Third Reich itself.
Secretary Kerry had the facts and the moral arguments on his side: “You just don’t, in the 21st Century, behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation. Of course, in many ways he was right.
But there was a glaring problem. Our own country had just wound down decade-long war in Iraq, which we started – at the cost of more than 6,000 American and allied lives and Iraqi deaths estimated as high as one million souls – on what most observers now agree was a “trumped-up pretext.” Observers around the world – including the Russian president – took note, and Kerry’s moral high ground began to look puny at best.
Jesus Christ had a piercing question for people caught in the Secretary’s position: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3. Your judgments may be factually correct, but they are worthless coming from one in your compromised position.
Two weeks earlier, Kerry was in the thick of things again, delivering a climate speech in energy-hungry Indonesia. He urged an audience in Jakarta to abandon the country’s reckless carbon-based development strategy, further imperiling the Earth’s climate systems already choked with more greenhouse gases than it has seen in eons.
“It’s not enough for one country or even a few countries to reduce their emissions,” said Kerry, presumably referring to the U.S. and Europe, “when other countries continue to fill the atmosphere with carbon pollution as they see fit,” referring to Indonesia’s aggressive plans to develop its coal and oil reserves.
Fair enough, right? The climate crisis is global in scope. Carbon pollution does not stop at national borders. Is it fair for us to work so hard to reduce carbon emissions, while you push ahead with all this new fossil-fuel pollution?
But inevitably, someone would take a closer look at the actions behind Kerry’s words. The average American is responsible for almost ten times as much carbon pollution as his Indonesian counterpart. The U.S. dumps carbon emissions into the world’s atmosphere at the annual rate of 17.2 tons per person. Indonesia? Only 1.8 tons.
Of course, Kerry’s’ central point was unquestionably valid. Low-lying Indonesia is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and intense tropical storms – both clearly established consequences of our global carbon binge. “It’s not an exaggeration to say to you that your entire way of life that you live and love is at risk” said Kerry. Carbonize your economy today, and consign your children to a hopeless battle against the rising seas and acidic oceans.
But was it credible, coming from a leader of one of the planet’s most gluttonous polluters? “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
And that brings us to the third development. And again, Secretary Kerry is in the thick of it. The U.S. State Department must decide whether to recommend to President Obama whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to transport 840,000 barrels of highly-polluting tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico every day. If he’s already decided, he hasn’t told us. And the country is divided on the matter, with virtually every Republican in Congress demanding that he approve it, and most Democrats opposing it.
But this much is certain: If Kerry decides to support approval of the pipeline, he will never again be able to credibly lead any other countries in a world struggling to address the climate crisis. On this one, he has no excuses. He doesn’t need Congress to do anything; the choice is entirely in his hands. His own president is on record as supporting every wise climate policy he can enact without congressional action.
People in our divided country don’t agree on this one, as we don’t agree on so many things. But everyone can agree that there’s much more at stake in the pipeline decision than whether nearly a million barrels of Canadian crude will cross our country every day.
What’s at stake is whether we hope to demand that others take the speck out of their eye, when we knowingly ignore the log in our own. Will the world’s only superpower be able to credibly lead in global climate action in the coming decade, if we flub the one test within our own power to choose? And for our children’s sake, can we really afford to squander another decade?