Is the United States to Blame for Climate Change? Part 2.

I presented an argument on this blog that the United States bears primary responsibility for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change. This post explores an alternative view, that responsibility for climate change is widely shared and therefore that the U.S. is no more to blame than other nations. The argument is based on these perspectives:

  • The industrial revolution, starting with the invention of the steam engine, began more than 200 years ago. As a result, industrial practices, economic policies, livelihoods, and people’s material expectations changed around the world before climate change was a concern. For centuries, and up to the present, most nations have shared one of the same goals as the United States: raising the standard of living of citizens in part based on burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.
  • In recent decades, plenty of nations have had poor records related to combating climate change. E.g., Christiana Figueres, who leads the U.N. Framework on Climate Change, recalls that the Saudis were “brilliant” in past climate change negotiations. “They would throw a wrench in here and get out of that room … then appear over in this other room, in which it was a completely unrelated issue, throw a wrench in there.” She added, “I don’t blame them. It’s very understandable [because of their ongoing income from oil reserves].” In fact, until 2015 virtually no leader in the Islamic world had called for action to combat climate change. As another example, Canada was part of the Kyoto Protocol but withdrew from the agreement effective in 2012. Also, a conservative government in Australia—the fourth largest coal-producing nation in the world—repealed its carbon tax in 2014, and then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott was said to be “in complete denial about climate change.” China has built about a thousand new coal-fired power plants—so many that “all of Europe’s [emissions] cuts were effectively cancelled out by a few months’ worth of emissions growth in China.” More examples could be provided.
  • There would almost surely be less progress combating climate change if President Obama and Secretary Kerry had not been working for many years with Chinese leaders and other governments to address the issue. Indeed, the U.S. has provided indispensable leadership on climate change for fifty years. E.g., MIT scientists were instrumental in producing the 1972 study The Limits to Growth, which argued that humanity needed to change course to avoid disaster. Earlier, the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee warned about the dangers of excess carbon dioxide in 1965—the first report to a national government about climate change. Former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for his work on the problem, including his efforts in 1990 to establish a Global Marshall Fund to combat climate change, his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, and his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has been one of the most educated and outspoken voices on climate change since the late 1980s.
  • Current national pledges to reduce GHG emissions, made as a part of the U.N. framework process, represent long-awaited progress but are “not even close” to the level needed to keep global warming to a maximum of 2° C or less. Inadequate commitments to reduce emissions are not limited to any one nation.
  • The American economy (which provides about 22% of world economic output) is responsible for less GHG emission per dollar of output than the world average, and energy efficiency in the U.S. has increased since 1990.
  • American fossil fuel companies may have an awful history with respect to funding disinformation about combating climate change, but so do corporations based in other nations, such as British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. A German company, Volkswagen, recently admitted to blatantly lying about equipment supposedly installed to reduce pollution in 11 million diesel cars. Many huge corporations spread disinformation, not only American companies.
  • Naomi Klein, a fierce critic of unfettered capitalism and of fossil fuel companies, has written extensively on climate change, and in This Changes Everything she concludes that “humans have behaved in this shortsighted way [about climate change] not only under capitalist systems, but under systems that called themselves socialist as well”—and also in monarchies, as noted in a bullet above—and that “[climate change] is not a problem that can be blamed on the political right or on the United States.” She believes instead that responsibility for climate change is widely shared by many cultures and nations around the world.

These and other perspectives indicate that a reluctance to acknowledge the grave threat of climate change, as well as most nations’ slow progress to combat it, are widespread phenomena. Finding a villain or scapegoat may be satisfying; however, in this situation there seem to be too many responsible parties to single out only one.

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