Point Take Responsibility and Take Action
by Lilly Zoller
Counterpoint Rethinking the Structure of International Climate Agreements
by Brian Ford
As children, we were all taught various invaluable life lessons such as: treat others as you want to be treated, always say please and thank you, and be careful what you wish for. Unfortunately, it seems that the United States government missed the day that it was supposed to learn one particularly important lesson: take responsibility for your actions.
On average, the United States contributes 20% of global atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions every year. We are the second largest contributor in the world (China beats the U.S. by a mere 1%, but their national population is over four times greater). Generally, carbon dioxide emissions can be a reliable indicator of a nation’s affluence. More affluent countries consume more energy, food, and other goods, and as a result, their carbon dioxide emissions are high. In the same respect, less affluent nations consume less and therefore emit less carbon. However, the United States rejects the fact that we have played a major role in global climate change. As a result, the richest nation in the world is not taking responsibility for its actions and is definitely not implementing effective climate change policies.
Given where we started and the expectations for this conference, anything than a legally binding and agreed outcome falls short of the mark.
-John Ashe, Chair of the Kyoto talks, during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference
In the past, United States government officials have said that they will not commit to a binding international climate change agreement unless the major developing nations (i.e. China and India) do so as well. President Bush abandoned the Kyoto Protocol because he didn’t want the United States to be economically strained, while other countries were not. However, the fact is that the United States is, in a large part, responsible for global warming, but it is the developing and vulnerable nations that are experiencing the consequences. Many small island nations have already experienced sea level rise, which, if it continues, will eventually cause the disappearance of entire islands. Parts of Africa have had droughts for the past three or four decades that have been killing millions of people who don’t have access to fresh water. When the United States government says that it does not want to commit America to binding emissions reductions because it may lose some money, it should take a look at what some of the poorer nations throughout the world have already lost due to America’s excessive carbon emissions.
In addition to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the United States, along with other developed countries, has the responsibility to assist poorer nations in coping with the current and likely future impacts of climate change. Most developing and vulnerable nations have expressed that they feel the developed nations should provide them with compensation for their losses caused by global warming (in the form of funding for adaptation plans) as well as monetary aid for future development. Some say that developing nations have the right to continue using oil and coal because they deserve the same chance at development that America has experienced over the past few centuries. Although these nations do deserve a fighting chance at economic development, using unsustainable technologies will only contribute more to the current climate crisis. Therefore, the funding that developed countries donate to developing nations should be used for sustainable development.
Finally, because America is such a significant contributor to global atmospheric carbon emissions, once it enters a binding carbon reduction agreement, global reduction efforts will really begin to pay off. A multi-national effort in reducing carbon dioxide levels will not be successful without America’s efforts, despite the efforts of other nations. Significantly reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions will not be easy. It will involve expensive technological advancements as well as commitments from government agencies, private businesses and all individuals. Americans will have to make changes in our every day lifestyles. We will have to get used to eating less meat, driving our cars less often, utilizing locally made goods, and living more minimally in general. However, these changes are necessary, because dealing with the consequences of not making such a commitment will be far, far worse.
In the end, it is up to the American government whether or not global warming will continue. It is imperative that government officials soon come to the realization that we are responsible for a good portion of carbon dioxide emissions, and it is our job to deal with the consequences. It is unethical to let the less affluent and more vulnerable nations feel the impacts of global warming while we continue to live our lives, business as usual. It is time for the American government to put that very important life lesson to use and finally take responsibility for our actions.
One of the greatest challenges of confronting climate change is the negotiation of international climate agreements. History has demonstrated that the world’s largest emitters of carbon are unwilling to reduce their emissions to a safe level on their own accord. It is widely believed that if a global temperature rise is to be limited to 2.8 degrees Celsius, the most promising solution lies in an international treaty that binds participants to effective targets and timetables for emissions. Unfortunately, there is no supreme power that can enforce the cooperation of political giants and emissions leaders in such a treaty. Even if the United States or China, in an unprecedented, unexpected move, committed their signatures to a binding climate treaty with clear-cut timetables for emissions reduction, what would ensure the cooperation of other nations? Good intentions do not always produce commensurate results, and most countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol did not meet set targets nor purchase sufficient credits to offset their emissions. Furthermore, these countries do not face any real repercussions for failing to adhere to their pledges. Canada went so far as to completely withdraw from the agreement to no consequence at all.
Conventions such as the Earth Summit, Kyoto Protocol, and Copenhagen Climate Conference have all recognized the threats of climate change, but have been mutually disappointing. Self-interest and distrust are often blamed for the failure of developed nations to commit to lower emissions. Developing nations such as Brazil, India, and China are reluctant to sign any treaty that limits their economic growth. African nations, the poorest in the world, refuse to commit to a treaty unless foreign aid is promised to them from developed countries to implement green technologies. Even the United States, one of the richest countries in the history of civilization, refuses to make any commitment because it would be political suicide for the incumbent president.
Even the United States, one of the richest countries in the history of civilization, refuses to make any commitment because it would be political suicide for the incumbent president.
The key to reaching a successful agreement lies in restructuring the format and goals of the traditional climate conference. Sporadic, ad hoc conferences on climate change have proved to be an unconstructive way of addressing climate change and negotiating agreements. An optimal scenario would entail an international organization such as the United Nations conducting an ongoing session dedicated to debating and deciding a course of action against climate change. This way, decisions would affect all member nations and be internationally binding. Secondly, the “timetables and targets” approach needs to be rethought.
We have seen countries pledge time and again to meet specific targets and timetables for reducing emissions and fail to follow through. To reach any goals, economic incentives need to be provided for countries to make commitments and hold true to them. Climate agreements are not arms treaties, and military action against nations that fail to adhere to emissions goals would be highly frowned upon. Cost-effective international policies that ensure that nations receive the most environmental benefit from their mitigation investments will surely promote participation but must be tailored to a wide range of needs before a conclusive agreement is finally reached. This is why ongoing negotiation is crucial.
In a perfectly moral world, the leaders of industrialized nations would embrace martyrdom and commit to a climate agreement without so much prodding, sacrificing their political futures for the immeasurable long-term benefits for all of the Earth’s inhabitants. It would be a historic moment to see the United States renounce its hypocrisy and to lead the way in future climate talks while practicing a new, zero tolerance policy on emissions reductions. There is nothing wrong with crossing our fingers while we wait for this to happen. In the meantime, however, we must dedicate more time and thought to creating an enforceable structure for international climate change decision making.
About the Issue
Point author: Lilly Zoller is a graduating senior in the college of LSA. She has a major in Program in the Environment with a specialization in sustainable solutions to global climate change and a minor in Peace and Social Justice.
Counterpoint author: Brian Ford is an LS&A senior with a major in Screen Arts and Culture and a minor International Studies. He cannot be trusted.
Edited by: Gabriel Tourek
Cover by: Meirav Gebler