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The Coming Meltdown’

In response to:

The Coming Meltdown from the January 12, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

At one point in his otherwise compelling article on global warming politics [“The Coming Meltdown,” NYR, January 12], Bill McKibben comes perilously close to borrowing from the Bush administration a tired line that it has long deployed to avoid committing the US to taking any action at all: China’s and India’s greenhouse gas emissions are what we should really worry about. Both Asian countries are indeed growing at least as rapidly as the United States, Europe, or Japan did during their bouts of significant industrialization. And since their populations are much bigger, their emissions, particularly carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use, will soon be quite impressive. But perhaps not all that soon. According to the Energy Information Administration, China’s emissions will just have caught up with those of the US around 2025. India’s emissions in that year will be about a quarter of this amount. In per capita terms, despite slowing population growth, China’s emissions will be about one quarter of the US rate and India’s close to one twentieth.

Perhaps more significantly, and this is something no popular writer on the subject—including McKibben—seems to say loudly enough, what really matters for climate change is the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide over the course of a century or so. Therefore, while it is important to reduce the rate of emissions growth from these large and rapidly industrializing countries, their share of cumulative emissions may not start to matter for another century or so. The US and Europe, on the other hand, carry a much bigger burden of cumulative emissions (42 percent) than do India and China combined (10 percent), and it is largely the impacts of those emissions that we are witnessing today. In fact, the US and Europe will continue to have the largest share of cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases for the foreseeable future.

It is of course perfectly justifiable to remind large developing countries that are starting to gain financial and political clout that they should also behave responsibly toward the global commons. But the polemical edge of such exhortations might need to be blunted on the basis of a well-known eighteenth-century moral rule that one ought to act “only according to that maxim by which one can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.” Kant’s categorical imperative is no doubt a secular version of the “what would Jesus drive” environmental campaign. But in both cases the ethical reasoning for climate policy is simple: if we want to prevent the climate from spinning out of control further along this century, a fair allocation of burdens is essential, and those who have emitted the most, and will therefore be responsible for the biggest impact, should take the largest and most significant actions first.

Chella Rajan

Senior Fellow

Head, Global Politics and Institutions

Tellus Institute

Boston, Massachusetts

Bill McKibben replies:

Chella Rajan gets it absolutely right, in my estimation. The standard American response to the Kyoto treaty has always been: we won’t do anything unless China does too. But this is very silly. The reason the planet faces a deep crisis is that we, and the rest of the industrialized world, have filled the available atmospheric sink with carbon dioxide. To now say to the Chinese and the Indians, “Sorry, we got there first; you find some other way to get rich that doesn’t rely on cheap fossil fuel” is both immoral and politically unlikely. The only realistic solution, therefore, is to take some of the wealth that we’ve amassed in the last century filling that atmosphere, and transfer it to the developing world in the form of alternative energy technology. There are mechanisms in the Kyoto pact that would at least begin this transfer; they must be enlarged and strengthened. Even as we take steps to rein in our own carbon emissions, we should be taking the (cheaper) steps to keep the developing world from producing carbon in the same amounts. And it is the greatest tragedy of the Bush administration’s nonpolicy on global warming that we have wasted five (going on eight) crucial years when the trajectory of Chinese emissions might have been nudged in a better direction—when, to put it simplistically, we might have helped them build windmills and hybrid cars rather than watch idly as they built one coal-fired power plant after another.

At the moment, the US and China serve as each other’s excuse for doing very little. The Chinese can say—understandably—that if the US does nothing they should not have to either. The US can say—disingenuously, for all the reasons Rajan points out—that China must make its move toward a lower carbon future simultaneously. The result of this codependence will be only higher temperatures for all to cope with.

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