Greenhouse warming and the associated acidification of the atmosphere are the products of the scale of humans’ presence on the planet, along with the particular way that we have developed over the centuries to direct our lives toward ever greater degrees of comfort and mobility. We continue to intensify our alteration of both: our population is still growing and a large portion of this population is becoming more affluent – with China being the most populous and obvious example of this. People have not yet found or developed any realistic alternative to a global economy based on the use of carbon-based energy and an agricultural and industrial system that releases billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
There are now 392 parts per million by volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compared to 280 when the industrial era began. And when one adds all the other greenhouse gases the effective concentration is more like 425 parts per million – a level dangerously close to 450 parts per million. Some scientists have identified this concentration as a likely threshold above which society may be unable to avoid a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times and potentially catastrophic impacts on the earth’s environment.
Balanced against this continuing growth in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the fact that almost all governments have been involved for most of the past two decades in a global process aimed at slowing human-caused climate change so that it does not pass critical points of danger to ecosystems and humanity itself. Some governments – those of most of Europe and those of China and Brazil, for example – have made significant commitments to reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions.
Government efforts are often even more ambitious at provincial and local levels. Voters in the state of California have affirmed a pledge to slash the state’s greenhouse gas emissions even though the US government has refused to make any such commitment. Some cities are setting up public bicycle systems to encourage carbon-free urban transport or are upgrading public transportation in other ways.
At the level of individual behavior, a small but growing number of people in the richer countries, and increasingly in some of the poorer ones, are foregoing unnecessary consumption simply because they know their behavior has an impact, and they want to make a positive difference.
Perhaps most helpful of all, women worldwide have an average number of children that is half that of their grandmothers. Average family size has shrunk from five children per woman in 1960 to midway between two and three today, and the slowing of human population growth makes a truly sustainable society much more likely later this century than it would otherwise be.
Despite all these encouraging signs, however, the environment continues to deteriorate dangerously, and the future we face is genuinely frightening to anyone who is paying close attention. Climate change in particular is proceeding more rapidly in recent years than most scientists had expected. The Greenland icecap is melting dramatically, with more than 200 cubic kilometres now streaming into the north Atlantic ocean in most years. The number of extreme weather events – “hundred-year” floods and droughts, for example, that are happening more like every five or ten – is well beyond what most scientists had predicted for this time period.
Perhaps worst of all, given how much we’ve altered the earth’s atmosphere already, global greenhouse-gas emissions are in recent years greater than the upper scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in past assessment reports. Even during the global economic downturn, recent years have seen more greenhouse-gas emissions than the year before.
Alarmingly, due to the momentum built into the earth’s climate system, the impacts we are already experiencing today from human-caused climate change come largely, in delayed fashion, from the emissions we released decades ago. Where today’s emissions will lead us in coming decades we can only fathom by consulting computer models, and what they show is frightening. Perhaps worst of all, after the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 there is no longer any international mechanism that offers a serious likelihood of slowing climate change any time soon.
Few governments are showing any enthusiasm for real action that would stabilise global climate at less than a 2-degree increase. In the United States, president Barack Obama, once thought to be progressive and environmentally aware, recently delayed but declined to kill construction of a pipeline that will transport billions of barrels of petroleum extracted with massive carbon emissions from the tar sands of western Canada. Put simply, we are turning up to “high” the burners that will fry the planet, and despite the warnings of almost every climate scientist, we are taking no significant steps to shift the burner controls toward “low” or “off”.
Much of our dilemma comes from the fact that human-induced climate change is a global problem in a world of nations. How can countries, whose emissions play little role in their own weather, induce other countries in the same circumstance to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? The world will need a framework – or an evolving series of frameworks – that will reduce net human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions to negligible levels. Then the frameworks will need to hold down these emissions for the rest of humanity’s time on earth. Looking at the coming century and beyond, what is needed is an enforceable deal agreed to by all nations covering all greenhouse-gas emissions and all humanity without exception.
Yet the gap between what is needed on climate change and what is possible in today’s world of nations is huge. First, climate negotiations to date have failed to address nations’ rational self-interest in minimising any constraints on emissions no matter how severe and damaging climate change becomes. Each nation is like the farmer whose livestock graze on a pasture land owned collectively by the entire village. Even if the pasture land deteriorates, the farmer knows that she will get no private benefit from seeing her animals go hungry, while any benefit to the pasture by her forbearance will be shared equally by all the farmers.
The rational self-interest of individuals or nations confronting such a “tragedy of the commons” is amply documented in economic and other social literature, but it has yet to inform and influence international climate negotiations. Only when global negotiations acknowledge and accommodate this rational national self-interest will significant emissions cuts become possible.
Second, is the absence of any consideration of proportion in national and per-capita emissions and the unhelpful categorisation of just two classes of national climate actors. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) does not categorise countries based on their actual emissions, but only in terms of whether they are “developed” or “developing”. A proportional approach to reducing emissions would plot countries along a graduated ranking based on present and possibly historic emissions, ideally based on per-capita emissions rather than those of entire nations, which vary greatly by population size. Obligations would then be proportional to responsibility for emissions.
Third, and as implied by this last statement, there should be recognition that per-capita rather than national emissions are the logical and fair basis for assessing proportionality, determining who bears the greatest responsibility for cutting emissions, and allocating emissions constraints. Nations, after all, are in effect accidents of history, with artificial borders that may enclose fewer than 100,000 human beings or, in the case of India and China, more than 1 billion. Moreover, nations are artificial, unconscious entities, unlike people, who are self-aware and self-evidently the living units of all human experience. Only because politics and recent history have so conditioned us to think in terms of nations, and because there is no higher form of government, do we insist on treating climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions as nation-specific when these are much more logically globe-specific and rooted in individual behavior and experience.
Finally, climate negotiations to date lack any framework of human rights, never asking if human beings have the right to develop economically or use the global commons to dispose of waste. How can we attempt to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases when we have never discussed whether anyone has a right to emit them in the first place? Even on a semantic level, we can’t establish whether greenhouse-gas emission is “pollution,” caused by industry, or an everyday activity of individual human beings grown to planet-changing scale by our numbers and affluence.
Paradoxically, one basis for a truly effective climate agreement, ignored to date, may lie in recognition of the right of all people to do precisely what must be all but eliminated: emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The most promising strategy for reaching an ultimately successful climate pact is to begin with a declaration of the universal human right to the global commons that is the atmosphere. This principle could resemble the treatment of the world’s oceans in the Law of the Sea, which uses the phrase “the common heritage of all mankind” and denies nations the right to allow their interests to override those of the world’s entire human population.
Just as the atmosphere is a global commons belonging equally to all people, the greenhouse-gas emissions that most deserve consideration in global climate frameworks are those that individual human beings rather than nations produce. Basing climate agreements on per-capita emissions is all but inevitable if a framework is to last. What national government, after all, would agree to a formula by which its citizens’ per-capita emissions are permanently capped below those of another country?
Robert Engelman is president of the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, DC