On Monday June 2, the US press began to shine a spotlight on the predictable political warfare breaking out over the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change rules. Yet, there are at least four crucial facts about any US response to climate change that continue to be largely ignored by the US media coverage of this food fight. They include: (1) a 35 year US delay on climate action has made the problem extraordinarily challenging to solve, (2) US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions are more than any country responsible for rise in atmospheric concentrations to present dangerous levels, (3) US ghg emissions not only threaten the US with climate disruption but endanger many of the poorest people around the world, (4) the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce ghg emissions is far short of the US fair share of safe global emissions.
For over 35 years the US Academy of Sciences has been warning Americans about the threat of climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the US Academy that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. By the late 1980s, scientists around the world agreed that action by the world governments was needed to avoid the threat of climate change. In June in 1988, a conference of the world’s governments and scientists proposed that developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% by 2000. The US, virtually standing alone among developed countries, refused to commit to any emissions reductions targets citing scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. The 35 year delay in taking significant action has made the task of avoiding dangerous climate change increasingly more challenging. In fact, most climate scientists are alarmed that the world is now running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change. The 35 year delay has now created a need for extraordinarily steep ghg reductions worldwide. The longer the world waits, the more difficult and costly it will be to avoid dangerous climate change.
Opponents of US action on climate change loudly now argue that the US should not act until China commits to acts correspondingly siting that China is now the world’s largest emitter of ghg. Yet they conveniently ignore the fact that the United States is a much larger emitter of ghgs than China in per capita and historical emissions. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has a limited volume, and because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes little difference where the emissions come from; the bathtub continues to fill. The US more than any other country has been responsible for filling the atmospheric bathtub with ghgs above levels that existed before the beginning of the industrial revolution to current dangerous levels. Given there is limited atmospheric space left before ghg concentrations exceed very dangerous levels, the international community expects the United States to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, it is not asking American to reduce China’s share.
The political fight in the United States often exclusively has focused on climate harms to the United States if it does not take climate action compared to the costs to the US of taking action. Such a framing ignores that it is tens of millions of poor people around the world who will be most harmed by climate change if high-emitting nations fail to reduce their emissions to their fair share 0f safe global emissions. For this reason, climate change raises civilization challenging questions of justice and fairness, a feature of climate change that the US press is largely ignoring while it focuses on harms and benefits to the United States alone. Climate change creates US obligations to poor people and places around the world that are most at risk.
In 2009, President Obama promised the world that the US would strive to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020. He did this knowing that the United States would need to adopt additional policies to achieve this very modest goal. Because the US Congress has refused to act, the Obama administration proposed the regulation this week that has triggered the political firestorm. Missing from the coverage of the proposed regulations, is that the Obama pledge on ghg emissions reductions falls far short of any reasonable judgment about what the US fair share of safe global emissions is. This is so because to have any reasonable hope of preventing dangerous climate change, the entire world must reduce its emissions by much greater amounts than the US 2009 commitment and the United States is at the high-end of national historical and per capita emissions. To having any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change the US and other high-emitting nations will need to reduce their emissions at much greater rates than the average for the rest of the world. Basic justice requires this.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor
Widener University School of Law