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Change the Climate Narrative (Reuters Great Debate)

November 14, 2009

Reuters Great Debate published CGD president Nancy Birdsall and Arvind Subramanian's op-ed on climate change.

Change the Climate Narrative

Efforts to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases are gridlocked over a misunderstanding about what is fair. This misunderstanding is hindering climate change legislation in Congress and threatens to torpedo international negotiations in Copenhagen next month. We propose a new way of thinking about climate fairness that focuses not on emissions cuts but on meeting developing countries’ energy needs in a climate-friendly manner. This simple narrative can provide a framework for U.S. legislation and open the way for international collaborative efforts to avert climate catastrophe.

At present, many people in the United States focus on the large and growing emissions of the developing world, especially China, which in absolute terms is now the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases, and India, which is growing fast and like China relies heavily on coal. They argue that it would be unfair to force emissions cuts at home without similar cuts in developing countries. A recent poll found that 60% of Americans believe that in any climate agreement China should cut its emissions the most.

It is true that developing countries already account for roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions, and that their large populations and rapid economic growth are boosting emissions fast enough to create a planetary crisis by 2050-even if today’s rich countries had never existed. But meanwhile a quarter of humanity — including millions in China and India — live without any electricity, and one-in-three people on the planet rely on straw, brush, charcoal and animal dung for their cooking needs. The resulting indoor air pollution kills 1.5 million people a year — about 4,000 per day — mostly children. Power for small businesses, irrigation networks, clinics and schools is sorely lacking. Developing countries point to these unmet energy needs and to large disparities in per capita emissions to argue that the rich world must move first. They note that the 20 tons of CO2 that Americans emit annually is five times the world average, well above both China (5 tons per capita) and India (below 2 tons per capita).

They see emissions as inseparable from economic growth and argue for the developing world’s “right to pollute.” Some argue that because most of the extra heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere were put there by the United States, Europe, and other industrialized countries, wealthy nations should pay “reparations” for the damage inflicted on poor countries. Rarely in history have we seen constructive solutions come out of such blame games.

We believe that both sides should shift their focus from negotiated emissions cuts to a joint effort to find ways to rapidly meet the developing world’s legitimate energy needs at low cost in a carbon-constrained world. How can we change to this mindset, adopt a story line that would lead ordinary people in rich and poor countries, and the politicians and negotiators who do their bidding, to do the right thing? Wealthy nations, starting with the United States, should affirm that, for any given income, people in developing countries have the same rights to energy-based services as those in the rich world-and then offer to help them obtain those energy-based services at the lowest possible cost and with the lowest possible CO2 emissions.

This should apply not only to existing technology, but to a war-footing approach to the development and deployment, at home and abroad, of new emissions-reducing and efficiency-enhancing technologies — solar, wind, tides, algae-based biofuels, smart grids and buildings — similar to the technology push of World War II.

The long-overdue climate speech by President Obama, explaining why action is urgently needed and why the U.S. must lead, would be a good place to start, and could help to open the way for progress in Congress and in Copenhagen.

For their part, developing countries should stop talking about a “right” to emit CO2, emissions are after all merely a waste product. Instead, they should insist on their right to energy-based services appropriate to their level of development — to light, and heat, and refrigeration, for starters, and then, as per capita incomes rise, to elevators, climate-controlled homes and workplaces, computers and, yes, flat-screen TVs. To make this level of energy services possible without destroying the planet, developing countries should press the rich world for massive public funding of green energy research, and for full and rapid access to all resulting new technologies.

Framed this way — in terms of a U.S.-led push for equality of energy opportunity — it’s hard to see how Americans and others in the rich world could fairly object. We think they would agree, because it’s the fair thing to do and because it’s in their own best interest.

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Photo of Nancy Birdsall
Senior Fellow, President Emeritus