Climate Change: Talk of borders just fogs the issue


May 26, 2009 7:17 pm

Nayan Chanda, wildsingaporenews.blogspot.com

 

AS THE United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen scheduled for December approaches, the debate over responsibility for the danger humanity has created is heating up.

The industrialised world is urging developing nations such as China and India to accept limits on carbon dioxide emission as a pre-condition for their own emissions reduction plan. China and India retort that the West, being principally responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases, should take the first steps and cut still-poor developing countries some slack. Even now, the Copenhagen negotiations seem to be headed for a stalemate, or at best another unenforceable commitment like the Kyoto Protocol. Despite all their talk of a global threat, politicians find it hard to admit to their fellow countrymen the simple fact that national borders are irrelevant to the climate. Millions of people living in the Bay of Bengal area will be made homeless as the sea level rises. That they never drove a car or owned a television set or that they have the smallest carbon footprint on earth means nothing. The carbon innocence of those whose homes may be swept away by fast-melting Himalayan glaciers too would not make any difference. Shoppers in California who enjoy cheap Chinese-made goods at their local Wal-mart surely do not expect the ‘brown cloud’ of pollution blown across the Pacific from China to add to their smog. In the end, the impact of pollution affects all. A recent study showed that one-third of China’s pollution comes from the production of its exports. But instead of focusing on the collective responsibility of buyers and sellers, that finding produced only finger-pointing. Chinese officials urged Americans to change their lifestyle and consume less; and China’s critics blamed Beijing for shipping its pollution to the suppliers of components and raw materials. Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman joined the fray by calling for a carbon tax to be imposed on Chinese exports. Mr Krugman argues that ‘shoppers who buy Chinese products should pay a ‘carbon tariff’ that reflects the emissions associated with those goods’ production.’ To the reply that such taxation goes against World Trade Organisation rules, he says: ‘Sorry, but the climate change consequences of Chinese production have to be taken into account.’ Against the backdrop of a debate about who is more to blame for greenhouse emissions, the world remains on an inexorable path of warming. Greenland is cracking and glaciers have broken up. The Arctic is becoming ice-free in the summer, creating a feedback loop of further warming of dark ice-free water and accelerating the prospect of sea level rising. Such a rise will, at some point, make the Maldives disappear and devastate the lives of tens of millions of coastal residents from Bangladesh to South-east Asia. Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers have been shrinking at an alarming rate, threatening the livelihood of over a billion people dependent on the major river systems of Asia. These hitherto slow-motion changes have been accelerating along with fossil fuel generated economic growth. That acceleration is now being monitored in daily satellite images of the troubled earth. The images along with the predictions by scientists have cast dark shadows over decades of economic growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the developing world. But even as the environmental costs of the growth have come sharply into focus, governments have continued to engage in the blame game. The US notes China’s emergence in 2008 as the world’s top polluter and calls for its emissions to be capped urgently. China points to centuries of Western pollution responsible for 64 per cent of the stock of greenhouse gases associated with climate change. Its own per capita emission of carbon is just four tonnes compared to America’s 20 tonnes. It is unquestionably a tough job bordering on political suicide to ask global citizens rather than citizens of specific blameworthy countries to bear hardships now in order to prevent some nebulous disaster in the future. But leaders of both the developed and developing world must at some point acknowledge the threat hanging over humanity like Damocles’ sword. The threat of global climate change is not one that can be calculated on a national per capita basis. The writer is editor of YaleGlobal Online.