Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 1.

Having pondered in this blog why Republican politicians think about climate change as they do (often with their heads planted firmly in the sand), I wonder, too, about the United States as a whole. Most Americans believe climate change is real and say they want the government to do something about the problem. But they (actually we, since I am an American) often elect political leaders who disagree with this majority view, and Americans enjoy what the rest of the world would consider a luxury lifestyle, heavily based on burning fossil fuels.

Is it fair to say that the United States bears the major responsibility for ongoing and excessive climate change, including any catastrophic outcomes? Should the U.S. be considered the villain of this time in human history? Or instead, is the failure to come to grips with climate change a reflection of flaws in the way that the whole human race thinks and acts?

I find it easy to be of two minds about the question, and I think that will be a good way to consider the issue, by setting out two arguments, pro and con. In this first post I reflect on why a reasonable person might conclude that the U.S. is the villain, and in a subsequent post I will explore an alternative point of view, that humanity as a whole bears the blame for climate change. Perhaps then I can reach a conclusion.

In a sense the question of America’s culpability is theoretical, and may be more backward-looking than forward-looking. But those who are deeply concerned about climate change probably wonder how homo sapiens got itself into such an awful situation, one that threatens human existence on our planet as few if any other crises do. Perhaps only nuclear war, or collision with a giant asteroid, or a hypothetical new era of massive worldwide volcanic activity are potential threats to humanity of the same magnitude as runaway climate change.

The case that the United States is chiefly to blame for climate change is based on multiple perspectives, including:

  • The U.S. was responsible for more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (27%) between 1850 and 2011 than any other country. The entire European Union (with a bigger population than the U.S.) was only the second largest emitter (25%), with China a distant third (11%). Even looking only at more recent years, between 1990 and 2011 the U.S. was the largest emitter of GHG.
  • A few years ago the U.S. became the world’s biggest producer of oil (petroleum), with annual output that exceeds Saudi Arabia’s.
  • Except for Canada, which has a relatively small population, and a few other nations that produce large amounts of fossil fuel, like Saudi Arabia, the U.S. emits the greatest amount of GHG per person of any nation in the world. For example, the per capita rate in the U.S. is more than 2.5 times as large as in China—and much of China’s carbon pollution should actually be counted against other nations that use many of the goods China produces and exports. On average, Americans’ lifestyles are more carbon-polluting than almost everyone else’s.
  • American fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon, have funded disinformation campaigns for decades, aimed at undermining scientists’ findings and conclusions about climate change. These campaigns continue today, e.g. through support of the Heartland Institute.
  • American leadership on climate change is weak at best, and some would say it is severely crippled or absent. The American political system is gridlocked; in particular, Republican climate skeptics make it virtually impossible to pass new federal laws (or, in many cases, state laws) to combat climate change.
  • The United States has flip-flopped on international climate change agreements. Notably, the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, under President Clinton, but then refused to ratify the treaty under President George W. Bush. Indeed, the Protocol was not even submitted to the Senate for ratification. Other nations have legitimate concerns whether or not the U.S. will follow through on promises that it makes to combat climate change.
  • Less developed nations, and thoughtful people everywhere, argue that principles of “climate justice” ought to guide the U.S. and other wealthy nations as they address climate change. For example, under a United Nations framework, developed nations pledged to contribute $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries threatened by rising seas and other threats to mitigate climate change. But economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to the Secretary of the U.N., says “the [developed] countries have not been honest at all in mobilizing that funding. Second, if they had been honest, we’d see that it’s much too small to be decisive.” (Note: In comparison the world already spends trillions of dollars annually on energy financing.) It remains unclear that the countries historically responsible for GHG emissions are prepared to make sufficient sacrifices in order to help poor nations, or poor people everywhere; yet it is poor people who will especially bear the burdens of rising sea levels, global warming, droughts, and other climate-related threats.

These perspectives show how much the United States has contributed to the problem of climate change and how inadequate the U.S. responses have been so far. Do they also show that the U.S. bears primary moral responsibility, i.e. blame, for climate change?


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