U.S. Polluters Über Alles

Wall Street Journal Editors Brush Off the Climate March

BY John Miller | November/December 2014

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the November/December 2014 issue.

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Tens of thousands of environmental protestors paraded through New York City on Sunday, in a “people’s climate march” designed to lobby world leaders arriving for the latest United Nations climate summit.

One not-so-minor problem: The world’s largest emitters are declining to show up. The Chinese economy has been the No. 1 global producer of carbon dioxide since 2008, but President Xi Jinping won’t be gracing the U.N. with his presence. India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi (No. 3) will be in New York but is skipping the climate parley. ...

[Over the last decade, China’s carbon emissions have] jumped by more than the rest of the world combined and [China] is responsible for 24.8% of emissions over the last five years. Over the same period, developing nations accounted for 57.5%.

No matter U.S. exertions to save the planet from atmospheric carbon, the international result will be more or less the same.

— “People’s Climate Demarche: The anticarbon campaign stalls even at the United Nations,” Review and Outlook, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 22, 2014 .

On April 22, 1970, 20 million people turned out for massive rallies and programs held across the United States to mark the first Earth Day. The next day, the New York Review of Books published a review of the groundbreaking book Population, Resources, Environment, by Stanford scientists and environmental and population activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich. In the review, Robert Heilbroner, the economist and historian of economic thought, argued that to stare down the impending “ecological armageddon,” capitalism’s inexorable economic expansion would need to be brought to heel by environmentally responsible and massively redistributive policies for the global economy as a whole. “There are simply not enough resources,” wrote Heilbroner, “to permit a ‘Western’ rate of industrial exploitation to be expanded to a population of four billion—much less eight billion—persons.”

Four decades later, hundreds of thousands of climate marchers in the streets of New York City and over a million protesters across the globe—plus report after report confirming that an ecological Armageddon is more likely than ever—were not enough to convince the Wall Street Journal editors of the need to impose tighter environmental regulations on the U.S. economy.

Instead of facing up to the gaping inequalities of the global economy, the editors used these inequalities to justify their brush off of the climate protesters. To hear the editors tell the story, the ever-greater emissions of the fast-growing developing economies, and not the emissions of the United States and other industrialized countries, are at the heart of today’s ecological problems. And without China or India attending a preliminary New York meeting before the next environmental summit, the United States is powerless to reduce the industrial waste spewed into the earth’s atmosphere.

That’s hardly the case. By failing to recognize the inequalities of living standards and resource use in today’s global economy, which are no less staggering than in Heilbroner’s day, the editors have managed to obscure just which countries bear the greatest responsibility for dimming our ecological prospects. And no country bears greater responsibility for fouling the earth’s atmosphere than the one with the highest emissions per capita among the leading overall emitters—the United States.

Carbon Emissions Inequalities

The U.S.-China Climate Deal Leaves the WSJ Trolling for Another Excuse

Just weeks after the Wall Street Journal editors wrote that any further efforts by “the West” to rein in carbon emissions are pointless because “poorer countries that are reluctant to sign agreements that impede economic progress hold the dominant carbon hand,” President Obama erased their main argument against U.S. carbon rationing by signing an historic emissions agreement with China.

Not that this changed the minds of the editors. They remain convinced that further U.S. carbon rationing is a “pointless” act of “economic masochism.” The agreement, they argue, asks China to do no more than what it was already planning to do—to have reached a peak of its carbon emission and shifted 20% of its energy into non-fossil fuels by 2030. And it is “asks” because the agreement is non-binding.

The agreement between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon emitters is very much a mixed bag, as both Bill McKibben, the leading climate activist and author, and Naomi Klein have pointed out.

To begin with, the agreement is in fact non-binding. But that frees the Obama administration from having to seek Congressional approval for carrying out the U.S. commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, instead of the current target of 17% below the 2005 level by 2020. Also the U.S. and Chinese targets are too easy. But, as McKibbon emphasizes, the agreement does show “that renewable energy is ready to go.” Finally, for the first time, a developing nation, and not just any developing nation but the poster child for poorer countries unwilling to sign carbon agreements that might impede economic growth, has agreed to eventually limit its emissions.

The agreement falls far short of what’s needed to tackle today’s ecological crisis. Sunita Narain, the Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) based in India, estimates that the agreement would bring U.S. and Chinese emissions per capita to near equal levels at about ten to twelve tons per capita, about three times the current world average. If all developing countries were to converge at ten to twelve tons per capita, “the world would over-reach its climate capacity and head for a four degree centigrade rise in temperature,” according to Narain.

Now that surely would be an ecological Armageddon.

Sources: “Green Leap Forward: Obama trades higher U.S. energy costs now for distant Chinese promises” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 2014; Naomi Klein, “Some Very Initial Thoughts on the US-China Climate Deal,” thischangeseverything.org, Nov. 13, 2014; Bill McKibben, “The Big Climate Deal: What It Is, and What It Isn’t,” Huffington Post, November 12, 2014; Sunita Narain, “US-China climate deal, bad for the world,” Hindu Business Line, November 12, 2014.

Looking at the global emission record leading up to 2013, instead of that year alone as the editors do, exposes just how feeble a gambit the editors have deployed in their attempt to excuse the U.S. economy from further environmental regulation.

The latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows how close we now are to an ecological armageddon. Emissions during the period from 1870 to 2011 have already added to the earth’s atmosphere 65% of the carbon dioxide necessary to raise temperatures by 2°C (3.6°F), after which the dangerous consequences of global warming are likely to escalate. Even more alarmingly, carbon emissions are currently on a track to exceed that limit by 2040, according to IPCC estimates.

The industrialized countries are the source of the great bulk of those carbon emissions. For instance, the Earth Institute calculates that emissions from Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States accounted for more than two-thirds (68.4%) of global carbon emissions from 1751 to 2012.

The same inequalities are apparent in the emissions records of the world’s three largest emitters of carbon in 2013. China, whose population is now four times that of the United States, emitted but one-half of the 74,758 million tons of carbon the United States spewed into the atmosphere from 1950 to 2012. And India, whose population is also four times that of the United States, emitted just 13.9% of the U.S. total over those years.

The economic gains from depleting the earth’s capacity to absorb carbon emissions have gone overwhelmingly to the industrialized nations. Just 1.2 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people live in the more- developed economies, where they enjoy an average income of $37,470, as of 2013. The rest of the world’s population makes do on much less. Approximately five billion people in less-developed countries had an average income of $8,920, about one-quarter of that in the more- developed economies. Another nearly one billion people (916 million) in the least-developed countries, had an average income of $1,970 in 2013, just 5.5% of the average income in more developed economies.

The differences in national income per capita of the three largest emitters of carbon in 2013 were equally stark. The average income of U.S. residents in 2013 was $53,960; in China, $11,850, about one-fifth of that in the United States; in India, $5,320, about one-tenth.

But nothing throws the global inequities of carbon emissions and who has gained from them into sharper relief than the disparities in per capita carbon emissions between the United States and the other largest emitters. According the most recent data published by the Global Carbon Project, per capita emissions in 2013 across the globe averaged 5.0 tons of carbon per year. While U.S. and Chinese emissions top that global average, there are enormous differences in their per-capita carbon emissions. China’s per capita emissions have risen to 7.2 tons per person in 2013, or 44% above the global average. Emissions from the United States, on the other hand, stood at 16.4 tons per person in 2013, a whopping three and a quarter times the global average. And while its per capita emissions are on the rise, India’s average of 1.9 tons of carbon per person was less than two-fifths of the global average.

“Try telling India to leave its coal in the ground,” a recent New York Times article challenged its readers, “after examining the latest data on per capita emissions of carbon dioxide.” Sadly, the Wall Street Journal editors seem not only quite up to the challenge, but determined to exploit those global inequalities to thwart further environmental regulation.

Capitalism, Economic Growth, and Global Inequality

Despite rising total carbon emissions, countries have reduced their emissions per unit of output. Global carbon emissions per dollar of GDP fell by almost one quarter (23%) from 1990 to 2011, but carbon emissions across the globe nonetheless increased by almost half (49.3%), and far more quickly than that in the developing world. That same pattern holds for the world’s three largest emitters, with China showing the most pronounced decline in carbon emissions per dollar of GDP, but the most precipitous rise in total carbon emissions due to its economy’s rapid growth.

That emissions from continued economic growth have swamped whatever has been done to reduce carbon emission per unit of output bears out Heilbroner’s contention that the earth cannot tolerate a spread across the globe of industrialization as we know it. Without a dramatic slowing of global economic growth—made possible by massive redistribution that addresses the unequal distribution of benefits from carbon emissions—or a fundamental transformation of technology far beyond the reductions that we have witnessed to date, we will surely soon hit up against the limited capacity of the earth to absorb our waste.

If nothing else, the Wall Street Journal editors’ brush off of the climate march is proof positive that Naomi Klein, in her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, is spot on: “The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

And that is yet another reason why it is imperative to carry out these actions—including a fundamental reordering of the global economy.

is a professor of economics at Wheaton College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

Robert Heilbroner, “The Ecological Armageddon,” New York Review of Books, April 23, 1970; Andrew Revkin, “Humanity’s Long Climate and Energy March,” New York Times, Sept. 22, 2014; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014); Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report—Longer Report, from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, Nov. 1, 2014; International Energy Agency, CO2 Emissions From Fuel Combustion, 2013 Edition; Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Trends in Global CO2 Emissions: 2013 Report ; Population Reference Bureau; Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2014 Sept. 21, 2014; The Earth Institute, Columbia University, The 2014 World Population Data Sheet.

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