The United State’s Responsibility to Fight Climate Change

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By Dustin Cai

Amidst the more visible problems currently going on in the world, the relative invisibility of climate change is no excuse to ignore the ever-looming problem. In fact, the world has already seen its effects: The UN’s former secretary general Kofi Annan released the world’s first comprehensive study on global warming and found that 300,000 people die each year as a result of climate change with an extra 300 million people negatively impacted.[1] Even small increases in global mean temperature of 2°C can negatively influence the market sector in developing countries, increase the frequency of heat waves, increase the transmission of infectious diseases like malaria and dengue fever, and destroy agricultural production and increase the amount of malnourished people in the world by 10%.[2] Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive and a world leader in technology development recently gave a speech in Berlin citing the world’s climate change as the direct cause of the mass refugee problem that we will see in the future that will dwarf the Syrian crisis we see today.[3] Musk explains that climate change will only exacerbate the current problems of water shortages,[4] food insecurity,[5] and the displacement of people due to rising sea levels.[6]

In the face of such crisis, it becomes a moral imperative for the most developed countries, namely the United States and others in Europe, to mitigate these effects in an attempt to prevent the greatest crisis of the century. If, in a relay race, I were to run a terrible segment, the blame of our team’s atrocious time would certainly not be on the guy I passed the baton onto; similarly, the blame of the world’s climate problem should not be put on the countries currently in the develop cycle. Rather, countries that have historically owned the largest shares greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – to the tune of 75% from 1705-2005[7] – should carry this weight.

Thus, in terms of a moral responsibility, it falls upon the rich and developed nations to ensure a stable future for global development. Because these developed nations in the industrial North created the majority of the problem in GHG emissions and climate change, they therefore bear the same proportional responsibility in cleaning up after themselves.[8] It would be a great injustice to those who are most affected by climate change in the Global South to also bear the responsibility of mitigating its effects. It is already a moral imperative to act on climate change in the face of its devastating effects with the responsibility falling on the shoulders of the industrial North. Now, the question deals with feasibility and timing.

Some people like Nicholas Stern argue that countries like China and India are the ones that need to step up to the plate as a result of their current state of GHG emissions, which now are responsible for the bulk of global emissions.[9] However, developing countries, most notably China, have already taken pacts to act on climate change, but their promises are only in the future. China has pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 65% in 2030.[10]

With all this in mind, what can the US do to ensure the globe acts now? Lead by example. A cap and trade policy, which sets limit on carbon emissions for companies while also allowing companies to trade their unused portions of their limits to other companies, has shown promising effects: The EPA reports that a Clean Air Interstate Rule, a cap and trade system in 27 American states, has reduced GHG emissions by 70% in seven years.[11] The Center for Environmental Journalism analyzes the effects of a cap and trade policy like this one if implemented by the entire United States and finds that it translates into the entire world avoiding 1.75°C of warming by 2100.[12]

But change from one country alone won’t offset or stabilize the current condition of global climate change. While developing countries have pledged to take action in the future, it comes upon the Global North to take action now. Ethically, the industrialized nations can no longer afford to remain ignorant to the problem of climate change that we face now and potentially will face in the future; rather, it becomes a moral obligation to stabilize Earth’s condition while developing nations are given their equal right to develop in the same ways that developed nations did decades ago.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/may/29/1

[2] http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg2/pdf/wg2tarchap19.pdf

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/elon-musk-in-berlin_560484dee4b08820d91c5f5f

[4] http://water.worldbank.org/topics/water-resources-management/water-and-climate-change

[5] http://www.fao.org/forestry/15538-079b31d45081fe9c3dbc6ff34de4807e4.pdf

[6] http://www.climate.org/topics/sea-level/

[7] http://paristext2015.com/2015/08/should-emerging-economies-be-expected-to-bear-the-burden-of-climate-change-equally-with-western-developed-countries/

[8] http://spot.colorado.edu/~vanders/pubs/JPR_responsibility.pdf

[9]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/dec/04/lord-stern-developing-countries-deeper-emissions-cuts

[10] http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/11/china-climate-change-greenhouse-united-states-policy/

[11] http://www3.epa.gov/ttncatc1/dir1/fnoxdoc.pdf

[12] http://www.cejournal.net/?p=1880

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