In two decades of climate-change negotiations, a deep divide has remained between wealthy nations and developing ones, each side insisting the other move first to lower carbon emissions and curb the effects of global warming.
But this year there was an uncommon optimism in the days preceding the U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen that the rift could someday be bridged. President Barack Obama's delegation announced it would bring reliable carbon-emission targets to the negotiating table an about-face from past U.S. climate envoys, who have always played the spoiler role at the annual summit opening the door for major developing nations, such as China and India, to bring their own pledges to Copenhagen as well.
But if the deadlock between developed and developing nations appeared to have been loosening, it could not have helped when Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate negotiator, categorically dismissed the idea that wealthy countries like the U.S. should owe the developing world a debt for the years of unfettered carbon emissions that are now contributing to climate change. "I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like," Stern said in Copenhagen on Wednesday.
Still, Stern agreed that the U.S. and other developed nations would cut emissions and give aid to developing countries that need it. The details are yet to be determined: right now, delegates at the Copenhagen summit are busy passing around draft texts and proposals, preparing for the arrival next week of environment ministers and heads of state, who will wrap up the talks. The negotiators' focus is on actions reducing emissions, ramping up clean energy, furnishing aid for adaptation that are politically and economically viable.
But the question of exactly what the rich nations of the world owe the poor ones is still up in the air. According to many environmental activists and representatives of the most vulnerable nations in the world, climate change should be viewed first and foremost as an ethical challenge rather than an economic or political one. Industrialized nations have flourished in part because they were able to burn fossil fuel indiscriminately for decades, and the impact of those emissions is only now being recognized as climate change. As poor countries see it, rich nations got rich at their expense: as the planet continues to warm, it will heighten water scarcity, intensify flooding and droughts and worsen some infectious diseases all of which will first hit developing countries that have not yet had the chance to burn fossil fuels in large quantities. "We are living on the front lines of climate change," said Dessima Williams, head of the Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of 43 island nations.
Poor nations around the world have struggled with natural disasters and disease for years, of course, and developed countries have always felt an obligation to help; hence, global programs like the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim to reduce poverty, disease and mortality, and empower developing countries. But from an ethical perspective, climate change is different because it has a clear cause: man, or more specifically, Western man. The ability to track carbon emissions means that we can calculate how much responsibility each country and practically each person bears for a warmer world. And because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, we can even calculate the historical responsibility that nations bear for global warming.
Although there is a long list of other past actions by rich nations colonialism, racism, slavery, war that have retarded the development of poorer countries, the exact nature of those effects is difficult to quantify. With climate change, a hard number can be assigned to historic responsibility, and worse, the consequences tend to multiply. "The impact of emitting greenhouse gases will go on for a millennium or more," said Dale Jamieson, an environmental ethicist at New York University, in a speech last year. "It's as if I stood on your foot for a while. It hurts, but when I take my foot off you, the pain gets worse and goes on longer. That's the kind of problems we deal with in climate change, and that's why we need to act sooner rather than later."
If so, it would seem that the U.S. bears more blame than any other nation, having emitted about one-quarter of all the CO2 that has ever resulted from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. And yet, even with Obama in charge, the U.S. has made it clear so far at Copenhagen that carbon reparations for lack of a better term are off the table. On Wednesday, Stern rejected the idea that the U.S. should be held retroactively responsible for a problem it could not have predicted: "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."
The thing is, that's not quite true. Even if developed nations got a pass for the decades of emissions that occurred before the world became aware of climate change, they had to have been aware of man-made warming since at least 1990, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out its first assessment. The science has become only clearer since then. Yet developed nations, and especially the U.S., have done virtually nothing to halt the growth of carbon emissions.
Further, the Obama Administration has made it abundantly clear that it doesn't feel compelled to make up for lost time. The White House pledge to reduce emissions about 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, which was solidified by a new deal announced by a bipartisan group of Senators on Dec. 10 in Washington, is far below what science shows is needed to avert dangerous warming and far less ambitious than the targets from the European Union. "Ethics says that those who cause the problem must take responsibility for compensating for the damages," says Donald Brown, director of the Collaborative Program on Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change at Penn State University. "It's unfair and unethical to deny that responsibility."
Of course, if a climate deal is successfully negotiated, money will begin to flow to developing nations Obama has talked about spending $10 billion a year until 2012 on adaptation aid and rich countries will begin to seriously cut their emissions. But the ethical questions get more complicated from there. What constitutes a poor nation, for instance? China and India have hundreds of millions of very poor people who emit little carbon, but they also have millions of the rising wealthy who own cars and travel like citizens of the developed world. How should these nations be classified? "Climate change is caused by rich people wherever they live and suffered by poor people wherever they live," said Jamieson. "The atmosphere doesn't care if it's my BMW emitting carbon or a BMW in China or Rwanda."
To get around that quandary, researchers at Princeton University have suggested setting emissions targets based on each country's number of "high emitters." It could be an elegant solution, but ultimately, U.N. negotiations are carried out by nation-states, not citizens. It's fortunate, then, that the protection of threatened peoples in the Tuvalus and Maldives of the world is not only ethically sound but also in the national interest of the U.S. and other rich countries. "The world must come together to confront climate change," Obama said in his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo on Dec. 10. "There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement all of which will fuel more conflict for decades." Ultimately, rich or poor, global warming is a problem we truly face together.