Change the climate narrative

November 14, 2009

birdsell-subramanian— Nancy Birdsall is the president of the Center for Global Development. Arvind Subramanian is a senior fellow at the Center and at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a regular columnist for the Business Standard, India’s leading business newspaper. The views expressed are their own. —

Efforts to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases are gridlocked over a misunderstanding about what is fair. This misunderstanding is hindering climate change legislation in Congress and threatens to torpedo international negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

We propose a new way of thinking about climate fairness that focuses not on emissions cuts but on meeting developing countries’ energy needs in a climate-friendly manner. This simple narrative can provide a framework for U.S. legislation and open the way for international collaborative efforts to avert climate catastrophe.

At present, many people in the United States focus on the large and growing emissions of the developing world, especially China, which in absolute terms is now the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases, and India, which is growing fast and like China relies heavily on coal. They argue that it would be unfair to force emissions cuts at home without similar cuts in developing countries. A recent poll found that 60% of Americans believe that in any climate agreement China should cut its emissions the most.

It is true that developing countries already account for roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions, and that their large populations and rapid economic growth are boosting emissions fast enough to create a planetary crisis by 2050-even if today’s rich countries had never existed.

But meanwhile a quarter of humanity — including millions in China and India — live without any electricity, and one-in-three people on the planet rely on straw, brush, charcoal and animal dung for their cooking needs. The resulting indoor air pollution kills 1.5 million people a year — about 4,000 per day — mostly children. Power for small businesses, irrigation networks, clinics and schools is sorely lacking.

Developing countries point to these unmet energy needs and to large disparities in per capita emissions to argue that the rich world must move first. They note that the 20 tons of CO2 that Americans emit annually is five times the world average, well above both China (5 tons per capita) and India (below 2 tons per capita).

They see emissions as inseparable from economic growth and argue for the developing world’s “right to pollute.” Some argue that because most of the extra heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere were put there by the United States, Europe, and other industrialized countries, wealthy nations should pay “reparations” for the damage inflicted on poor countries.

Rarely in history have we seen constructive solutions come out of such blame games.

We believe that both sides should shift their focus from negotiated emissions cuts to a joint effort to find ways to rapidly meet the developing world’s legitimate energy needs at low cost in a carbon-constrained world. How can we change to this mindset, adopt a story line that would lead ordinary people in rich and poor countries, and the politicians and negotiators who do their bidding, to do the right thing?

Wealthy nations, starting with the United States, should affirm that, for any given income, people in developing countries have the same rights to energy-based services as those in the rich world-and then offer to help them obtain those energy-based services at the lowest possible cost and with the lowest possible CO2 emissions.

This should apply not only to existing technology, but to a war-footing approach to the development and deployment, at home and abroad, of new emissions-reducing and efficiency-enhancing technologies — solar, wind, tides, algae-based biofuels, smart grids and buildings — similar to the technology push of World War II.

The long-overdue climate speech by President Obama, explaining why action is urgently needed and why the U.S. must lead, would be a good place to start, and could help to open the way for progress in Congress and in Copenhagen.

For their part, developing countries should stop talking about a “right” to emit CO2, emissions are after all merely a waste product. Instead, they should insist on their right to energy-based services appropriate to their level of development — to light, and heat, and refrigeration, for starters, and then, as per capita incomes rise, to elevators, climate-controlled homes and workplaces, computers and, yes, flat-screen TVs.

To make this level of energy services possible without destroying the planet, developing countries should press the rich world for massive public funding of green energy research, and for full and rapid access to all resulting new technologies.

Framed this way — in terms of a U.S.-led push for equality of energy opportunity — it’s hard to see how Americans and others in the rich world could fairly object. We think they would agree, because it’s the fair thing to do and because it’s in their own best interest.


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The idea of a focus on environmentally friendly new energy production technologies is a constructive idea; the problem, of course, is that the newly-proposed environmentally-friendly energy production technologies are significantly more expensive than the current technologies being used around the world.Another at least equally constructive idea is to actually demonstrate in a scientifically believable way that human production of CO2 has ANY substantial impact on world temperature.Until there is a scientifically-credible proof that human-produced CO2 is actually a threat to the world climate, there is no likelihood that America (let alone China and India) will agree to impose the extra cost on their citizens and their industries (which must compete for business, hence jobs, with every other nation.)

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

Fact one: global CO2 levels have increased 20% over the past 50 years.Fact two: global oxygen levels have declined over the past 50 years.Fact three: all glacial ice has receded by 50% or more in the past 50 years.Fact four: industrial farming contributes to thirty percent of global hothouse gas emissions. Bring back organic farming.Fact five: we are increasing coal burning power generators around the world. See Kingston Tennessee for the coal ash spill from a TVA coal fired electric power generation facility. There is no such thing as clean coal.Global warming is by definition increasing CO2 levels which causes decreasing oxygen levels. Every mass extinction on this planet has been accompanied by global warming. The last mass extinction(Eocene Epoch) left the planet absent 40% of it’s life and all glacial ice for thirty million years. Glacial ice returned roughly 2 million years ago with the return of the ice ages. Glaciers give us the multitude of rivers and fresh water lakes that allow life to flourish.Considering whether or not global warming is anthropogenic is a distraction. No one but fools debate the cause of a fire while it rages. As long as we burn fossil fuels we only stoke the fire. I urge all to research Scripps Institute of Oceanography website regarding this subject…

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

the only possible solution to this problem is to allot every person on the planet a yearly energy quota ( the right to purchase energy which can be in the form of kilowatts of electricity or the equivalent in oil etc.)The socially insecure or those that need full size pickup trucks and hummers and 8000 ft. houses to haul and house their immense egos and attitude would be able to purchase the energy quotas from the people who live in grass huts and ride bicycles. Now that would be fair.

Posted by S. Karl | Report as abusive

Anubis, your facts and logic is suspect. For one, we need 20% oxygen to breath at all, the rest is made up of nitrogen and argon.We are wasting our time with this debate, as we will never really know. It is almost like the afterlife and faith versus fact debate. Two things are for sure though, we have poisoned the land and water masses into extinction and that is where the actual challenge lies, the rest will remain rhetoric well into the next century

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

Colossal ice ages, punctuated by global warming periods, have characterized our global climate for millions of years. Glaciers covered much of North America just ten thousand years ago, for example. This was long before mankind was a significant element on the face of the globe, long before modern industrial farming began, and long before we began generating electricity by burning coal.Now some people would have us believe we are entering (or are already into) a period of global warming. So far the facts fall somewhat short of supporting this claim, but for conjecture’s sake, let’s postulate that that is the case.The question then becomes, “Why is THIS period of global warming thought to be caused by mankinds’ efforts, while all earlier such periods occurred well before mankind was engaged in the suspect activities, and on the scale required, to be the causal agent?” What were the causal agents of global climate change in past eons, and why do we think these are not the reason for MODERN global climate change (if indeed that is what we are witnessing today)?The “SOLUTION” being proposed will have a worldwide impact on the cost, availability, and use of energy by billions of people worldwide. It will seriously impact the economies in which all developed nations operate. It will PREVENT undeveloped nations from advancing.Given all of this, any SANE individual should want to understand the true causal factors which have been responsible for eons of past global climate change, and which will certainly continue to effect global changes in the future.How it is that — in the face of eons of evidence to the contrary — THIS TIME AROUND it is the puny efforts of mankind which are to blame, rather than the natural forces which have effected global climate change in the past eons?

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

That’s true. The whole approach is wrong, that’s why it does not work. Right now countries are playing the “blame” game, pushing to the blame of climatic problem to others.If the countries can get their resources together, to make cheap eco-friendly vehicles, so that eco-friendly cars sell at half the price of normal car, the world will be much cleaner and greener within five years.

Posted by scheng1 | Report as abusive

Say rich countries develop and figure out how to deploy climate-friendly technologies. The only way they will share this with China and India is through American companies. The only way China and India will buy this technology is if they are forced to. The only way they are forced to is if they have to cut emissions a certain amount. So we are back to the question of how much they have to cut, aren’t we?

Posted by Guillermo | Report as abusive

Casper, your reading is suspect. Anubis didn’t say that oxygen levels have decreased to 20%. He said CO2 has increased by 20%.”Fact one: global CO2 levels have increased 20% over the past 50 years.”If you’re going to post that someone’s logic is suspect you could at least read the post first. That way you don’t look bad misquoting something that is printed on the same screen you’re typing your insult on.Just a thought.

Posted by Benny Acosta | Report as abusive

Casper in order to exercise logic one must first be able to comprehend what they read. I stated CO2 has increased 20 percent. 300 ppm in 1960 to 370 ppm currently. Oxygen on Earth is currently around 19 percent at sea level and steadily decreasing. The higher the elevation, the lower the oxygen. Thinner air. Fifteen or sixteen percent oxygen content are the limits for large mammals generally though not always.You are correct that humanity has burned up the planet and that the time for debate has passed. I am not so sure that the people of my country have the stomach to do what is required.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive