Monday, November 26, 2012

The U.S. as world leader

After being in airports or airplanes for almost 22 hours, Marla and I finally arrived in Doha late Saturday night.  For the first time in all my travels, I had to show my boarding pass as I disembarked, presumably verifying that a) I had shown proper credentials, including a visa, to board in the first place, and b) that I wasn’t instead supposed to be headed to the next stop of the flight – Bahrain.  One of the flight attendants had warned us ahead of time that photography within the airport was not allowed.  A search of the internet later turned up uninteresting and outdated pictures of the airport in the 1970s and provided information about a new airport (with artist renderings) that is supposed to open in December of this year, after we leave.  Presumably, this is in support of the upcoming World Cup to be held in Qatar in 2022 (talk about planning for the future).

As typical (in my limited experience, at least), flights in the Middle East do not pull up to a jet way at the main airport terminal.  Rather, a bus takes passengers to the terminal.   Our bus from the plane drove seemingly in circles for a good 20 minutes.  It was dark, but I could make out sand, lots of sand, that had blown in piles around the open expanses.  I would later notice that sand is everywhere and everything in Qatar is the color of sand - the ground, the haze, the buildings, the cars...

A scene from our COP18 bus ride
Once inside the terminal, it was the usual cattle-herding-experience of going through passport control/immigration; my picture is now in the Qatari database.  All employees here were male, clothed in fine white robes and wearing head scarves -- white squares of cloth, some embroidered, with black “ropes” to hold the covering in place.  I believe these are referred to as kufiya.  Traditionally, the ropes were made of camel hair, but these looked to be cloth.  Many women, who were not coming off our plane, were completely covered in the black abaya.

Observers at the Opening Plenary of COP18
The rest of the airport routine was uneventful, and we were relieved to see a driver holding a sign with our names indicating that the prearranged hotel pickup had gone as planned.  The driver was young and dressed such that we might have been in any American city.  In many countries, the youth are rejecting the traditions of their culture; is this true in Qatar as well?  He turned on the radio; the World Top 50 Countdown was on.  I was a bit startled to hear Taylor Swift (We are never ever getting back together).  Next up, Alicia Keys singing Girl on Fire.  This was Doha, right?  Yes, the airport security confirmed that I was in the right destination when I got off the plane.  But bold songs from women in a culture not known for promoting a strong voice from women seemed out of place to say the least.  It was a bit surreal, and I suppressed an urge to giggle at the strange clash of cultures.  But it was late, and I was happy to reach our “home” for the week, Le Park hotel. 

I awoke much too early on Sunday morning, but unable to sleep any longer, I logged in to see what was new in the world.  I was greeted by two main headlines:  the growing unrest in Egypt and the “news” that Larry Hagman had died.  Add the unrest in Egypt to conflicts in Israel and the Gaza strip, Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and probably many other locations that don’t even make the news in the U.S.  The other CNN story began “Larry Hagman, whose portrayal of one of television’s most beloved villains, J. R. Ewing, led the CBS series ‘Dallas’ to enormous worldwide popularity, died on Friday in Dallas. He was 81.”  Ah, the oil tycoon of an incredibly popular show that aired from 1978 to 1991.  Not exactly the type of oil tycoon here in Qatar, of which there are many.  Sadly, I watched too many episodes of this night-time soap opera in my younger days, especially during graduate school.  I tried to picture J.R., with his sneer and cowboy hat, swaggering through the Gulf state deserts.  Nah, he belongs in Texas and on TV reruns.

My thoughts wandered to a visit to Kenya in 1991.  Several people we met at tented lodges in remote areas of the country mentioned how they dreamed of coming to the United States to see New York City (the iconic image of our entire nation, apparently) and our huge houses.  Many commented that we must be very rich if we live in houses like they saw on Dallas.  (Seriously?) Mind you, this is before the internet was available in this region; we were lucky just to have a few hours of generator power to charge our camera batteries back then.  Apparently, their impressions of our country were obtained from magazines.  Was this the best that America had to offer as aspirations for those living in countries thousands of miles away?  I had seen boys and men wearing T-shirts with American symbols (often the famous Swoosh or some pro sports team), but I figured that these had been gifts or trades from previous tourists.  Most of the schoolchildren we encountered begged for paper, pencil, magazines, or candy. At least 3 of these could be used for educational purposes.

I have had the good fortune of traveling to many countries, and it is readily obvious that the imprint of the United States on the planet is becoming universal.  Coca Cola is recognized even in remote villages, although Fanta is often also a favorite.  McDonalds and Starbucks and KFC are not difficult to find in cities around the world, although we didn’t notice any Starbucks wandering around Doha on Day 1.  Denny’s has become the favorite restaurant of a friend of mine from rural Cariari, Costa Rica.  The McDonalds in Qatar do have a Middle Eastern twist with the unique McArabia and McRoyale sandwiches (you can’t make this stuff up).  We saw signs for “Doha’s Got Talent” (although our American version is actually a knockoff of the original British show, I believe).  Personally, I wish our corporate footprints, or at least these icons, were not so universal.  They really aren’t the best we have as a nation to offer, and personally, I enjoy testing the local fare when I travel and learning about cultures that are unfamiliar to me.  But I doubt that this tide of influence can be reversed.

Given that the United States has so much global influence, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the rest of the world looks to our country for leadership in other areas, including the international climate negotiations.  (That is, after all, the real reason I am here.)  The little media coverage I have seen about the conference thus far, however, has not been optimistic that major breakthroughs will occur over the next two weeks.  After eighteen years of negotiating, our country hasn’t been the most cooperative (a reminder of our not being a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol – the only existing legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas reductions).  From a recent Common Dreams article[1]:

All eyes will be on Barack Obama and whether he demonstrates commitment to climate change early on at Doha. The key question for many is whether or not President Obama will chart new territory for leadership by the United States, a country which has long refused to make the necessary commitments that scientists say are necessary to avert a 2°C rise in global temperatures and the associated climate change such warming is likely to trigger.

Will this now change, given the growing acceptance of climate change being “real” in our country due, in part, to the extreme weather events of the past year and half, especially Hurricane Sandy that hit much of the east coast in October?  Estimates that damage from Sandy are now over $62 billion.  But the U.S. does not have sole claim to extreme weather vents and damage caused by them.  Numerous other episodes around the world over the past few years have also resulted in billions and billions of dollars in losses.  An upcoming event at the COP18 meeting is a discussion of the IPCC 2012 special report entitled “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters.”[2]  There are many here who attribute global extreme weather events occurring in increasing frequency to greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. and other industrialized nations.  Another imprint of our culture that now impacts the rest of the world.

Our carbon emissions of over 5 billion tons annually are surpassed only by China’s 8 billion tons, which have grown significantly since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997.  To be fair, our emissions have fallen since 2007, but this is largely due to the economic downturn.  Our per capita carbon footprint, however, remains higher than that of China.  In the days leading up to the start of COP18, our host country, Qatar, is sharing some of the criticism typically reserved for the U.S., given that it produces nearly 50 tons a year of carbon dioxide for each of its 1.6 million residents.   In an article[3] sent to me by a Moravian College colleague this weekend, Jamie Henn, co-founder of the environment group, noted the irony of Qatar hosting the event: "This is a little bit like McDonald's hosting a conference on obesity."  Those more optimistic instead hope that Qatar pours their innovative energy into this conference in the same way they put together a creative bid for the World Cup.

Christiana Figueres addressing the audience (parties, press, and observers) at the COP18 opening plenary
 In the opening plenary for COP18, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, noted the unique geopolitical location for this conference as it is the first time such a meeting has been held in the Gulf region.  She noted that this gives Qatar and the Middle East region an “unequaled world stage to showcase contributions to reduce food and water vulnerabilities” and to “build a safer, stronger energy future for all countries.”  The plenary began with a video encouraging the creative of an “Earth conscious world.”  Let’s hope that the 194 nations represented here, including the United States, realize the deep impact that we have on each other.  In the opening plenary, the COP18 president, His Excellency Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, noted that the “phenomenon of climate change is a common challenge for all of humanity” and the outgoing COP17 President from South Africa, Ms. Maiti Nkoana-Mashabane, reminded the audience “that our futures are explicatively linked to each other.”  I am pretty sure that she means in ways more substantial that the sodas and hamburgers we share.

[1]See 11/24/12 piece entitled “US Leadership, Global Solidarity Keys to Averting Climate Disaster”, available at
[3] “Qatar hosts climate summit amid criticism”, see


  1. A good news piece:

  2. I love the idea about what of the United States gets shared with the world, and what we share with each other worldwide. I think it's true that despite our incredible opportunity to access the rest of the world like never before, we instead share products and expand markets. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But I'm with you, when I travel somewhere, the last place I want to eat is McDonalds. I want to get to know the unique culture of that place. I guess I'm just wondering what the world would be like if we used our new ability for global communication to share ideas and love instead of, like you said, sodas and hamburgers.