In a press conference yesterday, the top climate negotiator for the United States, Todd Stern, asserted that the United States does not shoulder a “climate debt” for its historical emissions of global warming, claiming the connection between carbon pollution and the greenhouse effect was unknown until recently. Although Stern said the United States does “recognize our historic role in putting the emissions in the atmosphere that are up there now,” Stern “completely” and “categorically” rejected the concept of “climate reparations,” he said, “people were blissfully ignorant” of the implications of their pollution:
Let’s just be mindful of the fact that for most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon.
Stern is absolutely right that the idea of “reparations” should be rejected. It sets up an insidious dynamic of overlords and beggars, of guilt and reprisal. Even if such language — like charges of “climate colonialism — has some moral weight, it’s poisonous to everyone’s future. The only way a global solution will be found is through unprecedented cooperation, not through anger and guilt.
However, Stern’s explanation for his rejection of the concept doesn’t gibe with history. The greenhouse effect has been known since the 19th century, and role of burning fossil fuels in raising the world’s temperatures was first estimated at the turn of the 20th century:
1824: Beginning with work by Joseph Fourier, scientists theorized that gases in the atmosphere might somehow trap solar energy as heat.
1859: John Tyndall measured the radiative properties of the air, learning that water vapor and carbon dioxide were greenhouse gases.
1894: Arvid Högbom finds that human activities were adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere on the same scale as natural processes.
1896: Svante Arrhenius calculated that halving carbon dioxide concentrations would cause an ice age, and estimated a doubling of concentrations would raise the Earth’s temperature 5-6°C, in line with modern estimates for long-term climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2.
So “for most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution,” we’ve actually known about the possibility of man-made global warming. To be fair to Stern, it was only in the 1950s that the physics was better understood, and scientists began warning the public to be concerned about global warming pollution.
But nearly all of the world’s global warming pollution — including that from the United States — has come since 1960:
Center for American Progress Action Fund, from Energy Information Administration and Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.
Two-thirds (67%) of United States global warming pollution has come since 1960. More than a quarter of the total global warming pollution of the United States in the last 200 years has come since 1992, when the United States ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.