Here’s Why The U.S. Is Morally Obligated To Act On Climate Change

Credit: Citizens Campaign for the Environment

Internationally, the big hurdle to fighting climate change and global warming is figuring out a fair way to divvy up responsibility. Serious efforts to curb carbon emissions will require considerable upfront investment, so who should make those investments and how much? That impasse then influences domestic political reluctance in the United States. If the rest of the world isn’t moving, why should we?

Earlier this week, Bloomberg flagged work by the Stockholm Environment Institute and others to nail down answers to those questions with hard numbers. Their conclusion?

As of now, the United States bears fully one third of the burden to reduce global carbon emissions, with much of Europe shouldering nearly another third. It’s a bracing conclusion. The latest analysis suggests the per-unit social and economic damage from carbon emissions due to global warming is as much as twice what we thought. Several countries with much more modest obligations than America’s have already moved to price carbon, leaving the U.S. sticking out like a sore thumb. Even China is tiptoeing up to it.

Much of the researchers’ work comes from the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework. First, they set a global threshold for living standards, below which people are considered free from the responsibility to sacrifice in the fight against climate change. They came up with $7,500 a year in dollars (adjusted for purchasing power parity) — it’s the living standard at which malnutrition, infant mortality, low education, and other problems of poverty begin to fade, plus a bit of breathing room. Even then, about 70 percent of the globe lives at or below this level, and taken all together is responsible for only 15 percent of the cumulative global emissions.

Capacity to invest in climate mitigation and adaptation was then defined as all income per person falling above that threshold. As you can see below, the United States’ capacity swamps that of both India and China, despite the much larger populations of the latter two countries:

Source: The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework

The researchers then tried to quantify responsibility for climate change by accounting for cumulative emissions since 1990, and all projected emissions going forward, while excluding all emissions associated with income below the threshold. Putting it all together, they calculated the “responsibility and capacity indicator” (RCI) for each country. In other words: everyone’s fair share of the responsibility to reduce carbon emissions enough to keep the planet’s climate under two degrees Celsius of warming.

The result? The United States has 33.1 percent of the global RCI in 2010, dropping to 25.5 percent in 2030. The European Union has 25.7 percent in 2010 and 19.6 percent in 2030. Thanks to its economic growth, China does jump from 5.5 percent in 2010 to 15.2 percent in 2030. But no other country even cracks 8 percent, or changes much over that period.

Source: The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework

This shouldn’t be surprising. Other data suggests the U.S. can claim a third of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-1800s, and our per capita emissions top nearly every other nation. We’re also the most economically developed nation without a price on carbon, meaning we implicitly subsidize fossil fuel use far more than anyone else.

In fact, the paper notes that even if the advanced countries get their carbon emissions down to practically zero by 2050, the two degree target doesn’t give the poor and developing countries much room to work with. That matters, because reducing poverty requires reducing energy poverty, and reducing energy poverty usually means increased carbon emissions. It’s possibly the key paradox of human advancement — the world is creeping up on an astonishing reduction in global poverty, even as our greenhouse gas emissions keep driving us towards likely climate and ecological catastrophe. It’s what led the International Energy Agency and the World Bank to note that tackling energy poverty and climate change at the same time is going to have a hefty global price tag.

Here in America and the developed west, meanwhile, we’ve basically got the problem of deep poverty licked. Given the position of extraordinary economic privilege we enjoy in the global order, it’s right that the lion’s share of the climate change burden falls to us. To that end, the paper suggests establishing an international fund to invest in global climate change mitigation and adaptation, with countries contributing in accordance with their RCI share. Or just use the RCI proportions to calculate direct emission reduction targets for each country.

But it’s not grim self-sacrifice. The insurance bill the U.S. is paying for extreme weather disasters — increasing thanks to climate changefar outpaces that of any other country, meaning reducing global warming is in our quantifiable financial self-interest. We also need jobs, and specifically jobs that pay well but are accessible to less educated Americans, in order to avoid falling into an economy with just an upper and lower class, but no middle class. Research suggests renewable energy produces more jobs per unit of energy generated than the fossil fuel industries, green jobs are both more accessible to less educated Americans than all jobs as a whole, and their more likely to involve manufacturing. Finally, if we ‘re exporting renewable technology to China and the world, rather than importing it when they develop it first, we’ll help close our trade deficit and improve the government’s finances.

But self-interest aside, at the end of the day there’s no escaping the simple morality of the matter. As President Obama pointed out at a prayer breakfast in 2012, quoting Luke 12:48, “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” He was talking about justly distributing the burden of deficit reduction, but the point applies to carbon reduction just as much.

30 Responses to Here’s Why The U.S. Is Morally Obligated To Act On Climate Change

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Paying for historical emission has been the sticking point in previous international negotiations. These figures confirm the US responsibilty. I doubt the USA will be swayed by moral arguments but they may be by the disaster bill, ME

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    The author makes the error of equating wealth and economic growth with emissions. Sweden emits 5.3 MT CO2 per capita annually, around 30% of the US. Having spent time in both countries, it’s clear that Swedes have a superior standard of living and far less poverty. They work fewer hours, commute via public transit, have a much lower crime rate, don’t waste time invading other countries, etc etc.

    The key is to stop burning fossil fuels. Clean energy helps enable democratization. We could do it here if the oil companies didn’t control the government and our media.

  3. Henry says:

    The problem with this is they will never be able to sell it to the American public.
    The author is saying, basically, that countries with less poverty need to shoulder a much greater economic burden for Climate mitigation. But it boils down to nothing more than massive wealth transfer. This has been attempted before under many different guises and it will never catch on, especially in the US.
    Faith in the UN is now at an all time low here. We need to stop trying to figure out who is to blame for Global Warming and just do what we can to bring down emissions NOW.
    Less studies of this type and MORE ACTION!

  4. Leif says:

    The richest corporations, “people” now, in the world have almost “Church” status. They exploit and profit from the pollution of the commons and leave the spoils for “We the People” to clean up. On the other hand, why are progressives so compliant in paying the ecocide fossil Barons billions of $$$ each year to profit from polluting the commons? The GOP raise a sh*t storm if there tax dollars fund one abortion. Why must “we the People” fund the ecocide of Earth’s Life Support Systems? Are you there Elizabeth Warren? People? Anyone?

  5. Brooks Bridges says:

    I can think of no response to this post. The US’s responsibility for a huge part of the looming catastrophe is unarguable.

    We are currently on a path to 6 deg Celsius by 2050 according to an IEA statement.

    6 deg Celsius by 2050 is not a typo – 37 years from now. 11.7 deg F. AVERAGE global temp.

    “LONDON, Dec 18 (Reuters) – Coal will nearly overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017, and only a drop in world gas prices could curb the use of the dirtier fossil fuel in the absence of high carbon prices, the International Energy Agency said.

    The IEA, the energy agency for developed countries, said earlier this year that without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.”


  6. BobbyL says:

    Does the US really have the money? We owe $16 trillion. We pay for a vast military which depending on your point of view is either engaged in imperialism or protecting a large number of allies. Locally cities and towns are strapped for money as they sink under the burden of paying former employees generous pensions. There are 47 million Americans on food stamps and many millions more are eligible. Our infrastructure is crumbling in many places. We lack needed high-speed rail. Our schools are cutting critical programs when they should be adding programs. Not exactly a picture of limitless wealth.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The USA is massively inegalitarian, and income, wealth and opportunity are more unequally divided than ever. Median wages have stagnated for forty years, tens of millions are ‘working poor’, and tens of millions subsist on food stamps. A transfer of wealth from the USA should mean a transfer from the avaricious elite, not the struggling masses. Indeed the USA urgently needs massive internal redistribution of wealth, before inequality euthanases the economy and society. Or are you against that internal wealth transfer, as well?

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Coal prices are down; there are multiple causes of course but a drop in demand is one of them, ME

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Seriously Bobby, whose problem is that? The sub- Saharans who primarily live far under your poverty line in drought country? The Kiribatians etc? You can’t deny the US has pillaged to enrich itself while pursuing domestic tax policies that have impoverished the working and middle classes that actually do the productive work, ME

  10. Brooks Bridges says:

    Do a little research and find out how much is spent in US just on dogs and cats.

    And that’s the 99%. Now check into the 1% and the 0.1% and their wealth.

    Finally, I love the “We can’t afford it” when, according to the very conservative IEA we have a real chance at for 6 deg C in 37 years = pretty much the end of most human life on earth.

  11. Spike says:

    And the need to feed people is another strong moral reason not to delay as today’s Guardian points out:

  12. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “…engaged in imperialism or protecting a large number of allies.”
    I vote for imperialism under the guise of protecting allies (aka, being the world’s policeman). I shudder at the thought of the ROI, all factors taken into consideration. I suspect the principal motive is to secure future lines of supply for earth’s critical and diminishing resources.

  13. Superman1 says:

    Brooks, they backtracked on the 6 C by 2050 statement, and said they were misinterpreted. Here is their latest: “In the absence of efforts to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of GHGs, average global temperature rise is projected to be at least 6°C in the long term.”

  14. Superman1 says:

    That doesn’t mean we won’t see it by 2050. It means they couldn’t justify with present models and present optimistic assumptions. Add in good feedback modeling, possible higher climate sensitivities as were recently posted here, and it could happen. But, end of century, as many models predict, is bad enough.

  15. BobbyL says:

    I guess you are assuming that we get exploding health care costs under control as the boomers age and that the Democrats and Republicans will find a way to agree on deficit reduction, and there will be at least moderate economic growth in most of the years ahead. Also, cats and dogs need homes and feeding them properly and providing them with good care by veterinarians is expensive but I am sure many people would say well worth it.

  16. Rob says:

    I don’t care what you do about “climate change”. It just better not raise my electric bill or gasoline per gallon even one penny. We are already living paycheck to paycheck as it is.

  17. SecularAnimist says:

    Well, Rob, if nothing is done about “climate change”, then at least in the not-too-distant future you won’t have to worry about paying for food any more.

    Because there won’t be any.

  18. Tom Athanasiou here.

    I’m one of the authors of Greenhouse Development Rights, and I wanted to thank you for the review. Most US climate people are still afraid of these territories, so the coverage is scant.

    And two additional points.

    * First, the equity discussion in the climate negotiations is really heating up. Talk of “Equity Reference Frameworks” is all the rage.

    * Second, we are about to release a major revision of the GDRs framework, this time as a web app rather than a report.

    See if you want to follow these developments.

  19. BobbyL says:

    I have heard of a very slight possibility of 4C in about 40 years but never 6C in 37 years. Can you document that IEA statement?

  20. Brooks Bridges says:

    If we go up 6 deg C in less than 37 years no one will be worrying about healthcare.

    Here’s the link.

    Direct quote (from Dec 2012):

    “The IEA, the energy agency for developed countries, said earlier this year that without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.”

  21. Brooks Bridges says:


    Just saw Superman1’s post that they said date was further out. No way to retract post or edit.

  22. Brooks Bridges says:

    Thank you. Hate to give bad info. Turned up at a number of places doing a search.

    I thought it sounded so high I was surprised I hadn’t heard it before.

    So searched this blog for some sign of it and DID find this older post from Joe Romm:

    Royal Society Special Issue on Global Warming Details ‘Hellish Vision’ of 7°F (4°C) World — Which We May Face in the 2060s!

    By Joe Romm on Jun 2, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Includes a plot showing 2060’s would be a 1 sigma number and include feedbacks.

    Goes on to say: “In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world.”

    Given by how many years Arctic Ice predictions were blown…..

  23. Brooks Bridges says:

    This may be the 4 deg C you’re remembering.

    Google: ‘Hellish Vision’ of 7°F (4°C) World

    Comes up with a Joe Romm post from this site in 2011.

    A quote:
    “In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world.”

  24. Brooks Bridges says:

    Just went to your site and read:

    Climate Denialism has peaked. Now what are we going to do?


  25. George Leveto Sr. says:

    After reading many of the comments here ; its evident that there is a real need of change, either starting today ,tomorrow or next month but if any change is to be made it must start from within. I to doubt the results of having Americans join as a mass into a melting pot of ideas to save our world; as our fore fathers saw it to be a world that supports a nation governed “by” the people ,”for the people, and “of” the people. Myself UI could careless anymore , it seems that rather than to test the waters for proof you people would rather parish. If from every group of a thousand people each one could influence 10 more voters to vote their way soon from a thousand groups would come a million and on , and on. IT IS THE ONLY WAY WE CAN OVERCOME OUR CORRUPT GOVERNMENT. No more fixed elections (Bush-Gore) We can change the way our country does business.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The USA is massively inegalitarian. Wealth is concentrated at the top, where the rich control tens of trillions in assets, much hidden in tax-shelters off-shore. The costs need to be borne by these rich, not the bottom 90% or so of the US, or any other capitalist state’s population. To refuse to address the existential crisis of ecological collapse because it might trouble the rich is, in my opinion, moral madness.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Part and parcel of The Collapse. Global food production has stalled, and the prospects are deeply ominous.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And whose fault is it that you are living ‘pay-check to pay-check’?

  29. BobbyL says:

    I didn’t think that number was right. I follow this issue pretty closely and I never heard of 6C by 2050. Of course the possibility of 4C around 2050 to 2060 is certainly scary enough to warrant immediate action. Heck, even 2C is now considered scary enough. However, personally I doubt if we will see any real action until China actually commits to reducing emissions. They seem to be waffling on this.

  30. Dave Bradley says:

    Most American’s – which means people in the bottom 90% of the income and wealth pyramid – will translate this well meaning effort as a grab for even more of their money, and thus an ADDITIONAL decline in thier standard of living. And they will probably be correct. It thus becomes a “NO SALE”.

    There is a simpler way to do this which could become really popular, and that is to use a massive build-out of renewable energy systems as a way to stimulate the economy. That drastically cuts CO2 pollution rates and increases employment/helps reverse the steady evisceration of the poor and middle class in this country. BTW, “carbon prices” and other CO2 polluttion taxes will not accomplish a lot of renewable energy installation, because such high prices will be needed and those come out of consumers (mostly poor and middle class people) pockets and will get transferred upwards, which is the exact opposite of what needs to happen.

    There needs to be at least $3 trillion of direct investment in the economical renewables -wind, geothermal, tidal and biomass. And a big effort at replacing much of the crude oil derivatives with biomass based ones and also renewable electricity. Or more like $15 to $30 trillion if a lot of PV and over-capacity is used instead of low real cost renewables and pumped hydroelectric storage is used. And that money investment needs to get repaid by electricity and liquid fuels consumers. But these investments are also someone eleses jobs, and they will definitely associate with what is paying their bills/employing them/supporting their communities.

    So what’s so hard to comprehend? The idea of some kind of taxes on poor and middle class people (income taxes, CO2 pollution taxes?) in this country being used to finance renewable energy development that will also provide no employment to these same Americans now dreadfully worried about finding and keeping just about any job is such a non-starter. Yes, it would be nice to extract some money from only the uber-rich to fund out of country efforts, but that won’t happen- we can’t even get that for in-country badly needed stuff. And sending massive amounts of money from the US and dumping this into most developing countries will have wonderful effects – on corruption, just like adding gasoline to a campfire. It would be far better to export STUFF than money, and preferably renewable energy or energy efficiency stuff, actual stuff made in this country.