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.

carbon comparison_334

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.

climate burden_338

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 emissions data from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Population data from CIA World Factbook.


  • Yes, but …. many of us felt that it was reasonable to leave developing countries out of Kyoto Phase I in that they would be included in a subsequent stage. True, Phase I has hardly been much of a success with the partial exception of parts of W. Europe (notably France with its nuclear power, but that’s another issue) but, if not now, or soon, when? Is it possible not to include China soon if we are to begin to slow and reverse global emissions before it is too late? At the margin, global growth is very much tilted to developing Asia.

    I totally endorse the argument that Harper and Baird are using this as a cover for inaction, but at the same time I think the environmental NGOs are avoiding the issue that developing country inclusion must be achieved if we are to take effective global action within the necessary time frame. In short, I’m inclined to the argument that we should force the China issue via an implicit carbon tax on imports to match the imposed costs on our domestic producers as part of a serious climate change plan.

  • The world’s Kyoto I position has pretty much exempted historic emission, ie) Canada, the US, Europe and Japan are *not* having to pay reparations for historic emissions or for disproportionately African (computer models are currently split on what global warming will do to central Asian rainfall patterns) future costs.

    Kyoto I, derived from the Earth Summit 16 years ago, basically said developed nations would recognize they must act first, and hopefully this would induce other actors to follow: a treaty like what is inducing NATO participants not to withdraw from Afghanistan, or the kind of positive-sum behaviour Germany has stated they will acknowledge in kind by reducing emissions further, 30% by 2020 I think, if their European kin strive for 20%. 1st developed countries reduce GHGs, then developing nations reduce GHGs, was a methodlogy that took 5 years to iron out. Now we are right back, thx to S.Harper, GW.Bush, and company, to sometime before 1992.
    Ironically, Global Warming, discovered by an American President in the thick of the Cold War, is being blocked by an American President enjoying the economic dividends of the longest period of global peace since at least the 19th century.

    The solution is to ratify Kyoto and ask developing nations to cut emissions as they develop a consumer middle class (if China has 15% of its population spending over $10000/per capita annually, they should cut emissions at 15% the West’s targets.

    In all fairness the West should be paying reparations to Africa like E.Germany did to the USSR post-WWII; my above position is moderate and forgives a great deal of inaction. I can’t believe Republicans are retarded enough not to see the positive geopolitical angle in addressing global warming. Is this a defect of capitalism itself: that it is doomed to reinforce neocapitalistic ideals to the point of the collapse of progress?

  • Mexico is in North America; could you clarify whether or not its emissions are included?

  • Holly, the graph shows just Canada and the US, not Mexico.

    Phillip and Andrew, I think I agree with the point that China should sign on to a new treaty, but given the historical responsibility China could sign on for a slight increase in emissions, rather than a cut. This would, of course, mean a greater proportionate cut in the advanced countries, but that is as it should be.

  • “Kyoto I, derived from the Earth Summit 16 years ago, basically said developed nations would recognize they must act first…”

    But Canada and the US did not act at all. They business to now demand anything of anyone.

  • ETA: They have no business to now demand anything of anyone.

  • If I recall, it was E.O. Wilson, ecologist/biologist, and one of the world’s premier futurists who observed that if the developing nations were to progress to the point of North American society and consumption, this would require 4 to 6 earths’ resources, including airsheds, seas and landmasses. Economists do not tend to factor the ecological services of the natural world into their equations, nor do they often calculate the true cost of the harms and damages inflicted upon the natural systems and their long term consequences. Although in terms of minerals, and fresh water, and harvestible forests and such measurable natural economic products, they do the equations. This is the central problem, I think, with all current economic thinking and it provides a great missing variable, a true disconnect between the short term vision of trade and stockmarket driven interpretations of the virtual world and the future, and the stark reality of the ecologically driven probable world and future.

    The current debate by world leaders and environmentalists in Bali is symptomatic of this problem. If a real imagination was at work to envision the likely “meanings” of future predictions, we would all be scared, shocked enough to find solutions, and willing to do whatever it took. Some countries have no doubt a better grasp of what awaits them. As seas rise around Bali, there is no doubt urgency. Europe has been touched already by fires and drought and deaths due to warming, and gets the message. The U.S. and Canada are still in denial, even with a Katrina, and wildfires torching the west coasts, and deluges of rain. Rarely are these events even reported in the context of global warming. The environmental textbooks of the early 1970’s talked prophetically of the necessity of developing a post capitalist society, a sustainable earth society. That time is now upon us. Stern of the world bank is doing the math.

    We are creatures of this planet and pawns of natural systems, and if we don’t respect that, these systems certainly will let us know about unpredictability, destruction and disruption. Even such simple things as higher winds generated by global climate conditions can have profound effects on transportation and trade, air travel and commerce. And on agriculture, in the form of crop and tree blowdowns, too much rain, too little rain, loss of pollinating insects, or loss of birds who eat insects, etc. Water shortages and higher temperatures and sea levels changes already have the effect of forcing thousands to migrate. And one of the truths of economics and ecology alike is that they are essentially closed and finite systems, with many interdependent, interwoven factors, all in some way capable of affecting the whole. So no one country or class of people will be spared the coming effects, although some will possibly be more affected, and sooner.

    I have wondered for the longest time, when a synthesis would enter into the public consciousness, an understanding that we are all in this together, and would have to achieve whatever future is possible in a holistic sense. Not in the current schizoid fractured manner. If one watches the Stock Market shows, the disconnect is strongly apparent. There seems to be no understanding that maybe trade with China is not in the best interest economically or ecologically for the Chinese or the North Americans. As many a major ecologist has noted, we are metaphorically driving a car towards a brick wall at 100 miles an hour. If some CEO makes excessive profit by tapping the capital of some poorer labour market and exploiting a country that has absolutely no environmental understanding nor laws, he is a hero of economics. Cost cutting and corner cutting in the environmental world however cannot be written off the books. It is all cumulative and every action has a reaction.

    To expend all the known reserves of oil and fossil fuels in a mad rush to export and expand markets all over the world is the old short term thinking of immediate profit. To make it into the economic world of the future, more long range and sensible thinking is required. It is patently immoral to trade with China. North American pursuit of cheap goods and the production of such are deeply implicit in the destruction of the atmosphere, especially since China will very rapidly overtake the U.S. as the major polluter in the world. The only conscionable way to keep fuelling the trade is for the U.S. to supply and help the Chinese to achieve an acceptable level of pollution abatement and control. But under the current profit driven system, would anyone think this is a good investment in the future?? The U. S. as the premier producer of global CO2 over the last century owes something to the rest of the world. Ecological responsibility and sustainability.

    If no co-operation comes out of North America on this front, the reputation of the North American for mindless greed will be sealed by the rest of the world, and the longterm fate of all will be affected. Every sector of the world must contract and look internally to its own role in this sustainability. Population is the easiest thing to control and reduce. Fossil fuel is easily avoided, especially if the admission is made that it is not a viable renewable resource. Some countries have so much resource base, Canada being one that there is no inherent need to trade and put trucks on the road. If our borders were sealed tomorrow, we would rebuild our local manufacturing economies and be more self sustaining. It is one thing to view trade as the endall economically, but it is closer to suicide ecologically. Unless we can achieve major improvements in fuel technology and sources. Answers are all around but if we are driven by old thinking and blind greed, we are not moving into the new realities.

  • Exusian, I wouldn’t count Canada and the USA out just yet. Kyoto carbon trading limits could be lifted and Kyoto calls for a 1.4X multiplier to be leveed against any unmet GHG reduction quota to be carried over into the next treaty. Canada prides itself on being a stabilizing world influence and the USA will want to atone for the last eight years of Medieval times.
    But I think the cheap solutions are disappearing as we blog. The same boomers that racked up debt, emitted GHGs, will soon demand health care public spending. It isn’t that environmental spending needs to be anywhere near health care, it is just: reducing GHGs runs into the oil industry that runs the USA and Canada. With health care the power brokers are the boomers.

    The world’s aggragate worth for the 21st century may be in the $quintillions$, assuming 2100 industry has mined an asteroid or two, and harnessed some nanotechnologies. Most of this worth arises when previously uncosted (the new nodes of the arpanet/internet) resources get costed and capitalized by lenders. Addressing Global Warming is the only blunt instrument I see capable of costing so many uncosted resources (like regular monsoons and a lack of environmental refugees/terrorists). Paying for GHG reductions will return at least double any other social investment. Each mid-21st Lagos civilian will be worth $one million economically, easily (a Canadian is worth maybe $250 000 as of 2007).

    A Conservative agenda should value one’s own 2050 civilians more highly than another nation’s 2050 civilians. And a Liberal agenda should value them closer to parity.
    But here, in this 2007 world, the Conservative agenda deny any value to African 2050 civilians, and very little even to their own (won’t be able to consume African software imports, for instance). We might as well go back to the stone ages where we were just maurading bands of humans trying not to die of famine or pandemic in between inter-glacials.

    With the Conservative environmental aganda, the world of 2100 might not even output 10X what we output today. It looks to me to be almost forced to keep wealth segregated (neocapitalism) and all bets are off as to how variable rainfall gets (the Americans don’t have a strategic grain store and the number of research groups working on this is in the single digits).
    With a Liberal/democrat environmental aganda, there is the opportunity for 2100 to output $quadrillions.

    The header really means: who pays for climate change? There are investments such as long-term mortgages that extend out 45-50 years. I guess really long-term bonds…the poor will die the most if climate is ignored, but the rich will miss out the most economically (living like the Jetsons). I suppose bonds having 50, 75, and 100 year maturities an indexed to very counter cyclical commodities like the store of the world’s aquifer reservoirs, grain stockpiles, real estate, maybe even asteroids or craters…force OPEC-freshwater on the world if necessary to avert the loss of quintillions in 21st century capital.

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