Accepting Responsibility for a Role in Climate Change

'Blissfully Ignorant' or Morally Responsible?

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Imagine you’re a well-to-do person attending a dinner of your peers. The food is top-rate and there’s plenty of it. Course after course is laid upon the table.

A group of less-advantaged people has been watching from the sidelines. When the dinner is done, you invite them to join you at the table. After the restaurant staff has served coffee, the bill comes. You and your rich peers insist that everyone now at the table must share in paying the entire bill.

If that seems unfair, then you have just understood the position of the delegates from emerging economies, now negotiating with their wealthier colleagues from the North over a climate deal at Copenhagen.

Some poorer nations have taken the position that because the industrialized world is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere — in effect exhausting the environment’s capacity to cope with carbon — rich nations must pay “damages” or “reparations”. These payments presumably would be used by emerging economies to cope with the climate changes that already are devastating some of them, and to increase their standards of living while minimizing their emissions.

But the United States’ chief negotiator, Todd Stern — an attorney and by all accounts a very good and moral man — rejects that argument. Speaking at COP15, the international conference on climate change at Copenhagen, he repeated President Barack Obama’s recent promise that the United States will pay a “fair share” of financial assistance to emerging economies. But, Stern said:

"We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere, up there, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that."

Through most of the past 200 years of industrial revolution, Stern argued, people were “blissfully ignorant” that carbon emissions caused climate change. Therefore, he contended, the people of the United States need not feel a sense of guilt.

Like a good lawyer arguing on behalf of his defendant, Mr. Stern has taken a tough bargaining position. But it is neither accurate nor moral. At the highest levels of academia and government, we have not been blissfully ignorant that industrialization would result in climate change, and even if we were, that does not absolve the developed world of its responsibility to help poor nations as they attempt to achieve a standard of living they so far have only observed from the sidelines.

Scientists have known about climate change since the last 1800s. The first estimates that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could dramatically increase atmospheric temperatures were made in the late 1800s when Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius estimated that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase the Earth’s surface temperatures by 5-6 degrees Celsius.

A long period of debate ensued during the early 20th Century, but evidence mounted that Arrehenius had it right. By mid-century, physical measurements were showing a striking correlation between greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the Earth’s temperature.

In the United States, presidents at least as early as Lyndon Johnson were warned that climate change was coming. In 1965, Johnson’s panel of science advisors told him:

"By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur."

Every U.S. president since has known of the risks of climate change. Every president and Congress since has failed to adequately mitigate or manage that risk. Although then Vice President Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the United States in 1998, the U.S. Senate made clear it would note vote in favor of ratification. As a result, President Clinton didn’t bother to try.

It wasn’t until this year that either house of the U.S. Congress passed a bill to begin controlling greenhouse gases. That bill, the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), proposes to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at about 3 percent below their 1990 level by 2020 — a ridiculously low goal given that America is the country most responsible for the warming gases in the atmosphere today and remains one of the world’s leading carbon polluters.

Our national climate policy has been dominated for a century by denial, by the political influence of fossil energy industries, and by willful disregard for climate science verging on, if not crossing the line into, gross negligence.

Even if Mr. Stern were correct — that the political leaders of the industrial revolution were “blissfully ignorant” of the relationship between pollution and climate change — that may not absolve them of liability for the damages our greenhouse gas emissions have caused. I asked University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood about this. Her answer:

"There are different competing policy objectives that a government has to consider, one of which is fairness to the polluter (by not punishing action that was legal at the time) and the other is protection of the public (by cleaning up the hazardous waste site). The courts have chosen the latter over the former every single time."

Wood contends there is substantial basis in case law, U.S. statutes and international treaties to hold public officials accountable as “trustees of the commons”, responsible for protecting the air, water, soils and other natural resources on which our wealth and health depend.

If we Americans should not feel guilty about our role in climate change, then we should at least acknowledge a great moral obligation to help poorer nations get to the table of genuine prosperity (the definition of which deserves its own essay) without further destroying the commons.

In arguing for the plaintiff, I will concede two points. First, money is far from the only issue on which developed nations must take responsibility. We also have a moral duty to dramatically cut our emissions and to do so quickly. On its blog, the Center for American Progress reported one conversation it had at COP15 with a representative of island nations that are seeing their land and cultures lost to sea level rise:

All of the billions and trillions in the world won’t do a darn thing if your country is drowning or, worse yet, no longer exists. For the small islands, the focus should be on drastic emission reductions and not a price tag for their existence.

Second, we must be creative in finding the money that developing nations will need for mitigation and adaptation. Financial assistance of the type and amount that adds appreciably to staggering national debts or that further undermines the economies of the developed world is not in anyone’s best interest.

For example, among the ideas circulating through COP15 is a proposal by George Soros to create a $100 billion assistance fund for poor nations using foreign exchange reserves issued by the International Monetary Fund — an idea Soros said would not add to anyone’s national debt.

Poorer countries would win a moral victory by forcing industrial economies to characterize financial assistance as “reparations”, or to demand punitive as well as compensatory damages for past emissions. But the moral victory is not as important as the funding itself.

What cannot be reasonably argued, however, is that the United States and the other rich countries who have been eating so well for so long have no moral responsibility to help others find a way to achieve their own decent, safe, sanitary and sustainable standards of living. That help should be given willingly and generously.


See also:

Road to Copenhagen: Doing the Climate Shuffle

Road to Copenhagen: Managing Risk

Road to Copenhagen: Re-Tooling Industry

Road to Copenhagen: A New Social Contract

Road to Copenhagen: Audacious Leadership vs. Nattering Nabobs of Negativism