Who bears responsiblity for climate change?
Canada’s Environment Minister, John Baird, is in Bali doing his best to undermine any progress towards a new pact on climate change. One of his arguments is that everyone needs to be on board, especially the US and China, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. However, it is worth thinking about who is responsible for the current problem before we go assigning responsibility for dealing with it. China is close to surpassing (already surpassed, who knows for sure?) the US as top emitter globally, but China has 1.3 billion people compared to 300 million in the US, and China’s period of industrial development has been relatively recent. That’s not to let China off the hook entirely, but if we were to allocate emissions globally on a per capita basis with a hard cap (dare to dream …) China would likely have some room to continue increasing emissions.
Eric de Place at the Sightline Institute provides a reality check on this theme with data on historical emissions by region:
Considering the last 115 years — you know, the period that caused climate change — North America is responsible for more than 3 times as much global warming pollution as China, North Korea, Mongolia, and Vietnam put together.
And that’s not the half of it. Not only are we North Americans vastly wealthier, but on a per capita basis we bear far more responsibility for the climate pollution that’s already in the sky.
This chart compares historical carbon emissions with the number of residents alive today. The North American legacy has been vastly more damaging to the atmosphere than Asia’s. So, as individuals living today in what Gore rightly calls “an era of consequences,” we bear an outsize share of the responsibility.
By the way, country-by-country emissions data was not readily available — I’ll tease it apart later — but I think the regional comparison makes my point adequately.
Carbon emissionsfrom Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Population data from .