David Wallace-Wells has done it again. Devastated me with considerations I should have had on my own, but had not. And he makes it so vivid that once you see his point you cannot stop seeing it. Having lived in the Global South for a majority of my adult years, but having been born into and lived in the Global North for the first half of my life, this story resonates with me in ways I cannot quite describe. But the quote from Proverbs in yesterday’s post seems even more intensely relevant:
A trillion tons of carbon hangs in the air, put there by the world’s rich, an existential threat to its poor. Can we remove it?
I. What Is Owed
The math is as simple as the moral claim. We know how much carbon has been emitted and by which countries, which means we know who is most responsible and who will suffer most and that they are not the same. We know that the burden imposed on the world’s poorest by its richest is gruesome, that it is growing, and that it represents a climate apartheid demanding reparation — or should know it. We know we can remove some of that carbon from the atmosphere and undo at least some of the damage. We know the cost of doing so using tools we have today. And we know that unless we use them, the problem will never go away.
Carbon dioxide is a gas, but it doesn’t dissipate immediately like viral aerosols in the wind. It accumulates, thickening the atmosphere for centuries, which means that all the carbon that has been added to the skies since the advent of industrialization is still heating the planet today, and will be for ages to come, turning the Earth we have known into one we don’t.
Warming is often described as an ecological crisis. But there is another way to conceive of climate change: as a moral catastrophe, engineered by the sheltered nations of the global North in the recent past, and suffered by those, in the global South, least responsible for it and least prepared. The rich are rich today because of development powered by fossil fuels; the poorest today are those who have produced practically none of that pollution. But the atmosphere is as indifferent to the location of emissions as it is to motive; what matters is the tally of damage. Climate policy concerns itself primarily with future emissions trajectories: what can be done. But we have a climate crisis in all its urgency and brutality now because of legacy emissions: what has been done.
What has been done is this: Sixty percent of all historical emissions were produced in the lifetime of the average American, who is 38. Almost 90 percent were produced in the lifetime of our president. The Paris agreement of 2015 established a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That goal implies a carbon budget. We have already spent 89 percent of it.
Today, as hundreds of millions still lack electricity in the global South, 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions are being produced by the countries of the G20. Nearly half are produced by the world’s richest 10 percent, and a single transatlantic airline ticket yields one ton of CO2, more than the annual emissions of the average resident of sub-Saharan Africa. One recent study suggested that every four Americans could, in their lifetime, produce enough carbon to kill one person living elsewhere on the planet. Wealth can enable decarbonization now; with clean energy cheaper than dirty energy for 90 percent of the world, renewables are finally yielding viable dreams of global green prosperity. But all of industrial history has been governed by a different pattern: Growth has meant emissions, and emissions have meant growth. The climate crisis is the result of that history, as is the wealth of nations.
Since 1850, when anthropogenic emissions essentially began, the U.S. has produced 509 gigatons of carbon dioxide, according to a recent review by Simon Evans of Carbon Brief. That is by far the most of any nation in the world, a fifth of the total. China has produced the second most, with 284 gigatons, only about half the American total, though it has three times as many people and is often vilified by Americans as the great climate scoundrel. Third is Russia, with 173, followed by Brazil (113), Indonesia (103), Germany (89), India (86), the U.K. (75), Japan (67), and Canada (66).
In the U.S., where the term reparations typically encompasses both historical and current racial injustice, actual tabulations can get tangled in the messy, though intuitive, relationship between the two. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s culture-changing essay on the subject from 2014 landed on a call to study the matter.) When it comes to warming, you don’t have to calculate backward from climate damages, which are shrouded in uncertainty until disaster hits. Instead, you can work forward from the more hopeful principle of restoration. That is the clarifying moral logic of climate reparations: One inarguable measure of responsibility for anything that’s been done is what it would take to undo it.
Technologies that can remove carbon dioxide from the air and begin to repair the climate do exist. We’re using them at infinitesimal scale, and staggering obstacles to their global implementation remain — but, usefully, these methods come with present-tense price tags. Climeworks in Switzerland is charging about $600 a ton. Other “nature based” approaches promise removal for as little as $10 per ton, though each has limitations and drawbacks. There are skeptics of engineered approaches, too, but most scientists and researchers believe that, given investment and public support, at some point over the next decade or two, the price of extracting and storing carbon by scalable technique will fall to about $100 a ton. An alternate method of tabulating damages is called the “social cost of carbon”; recently, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern submitted that it was also $100 a ton.
From there, calculating the climate debt is just a matter of multiplication. By that math, what is owed is this: by the U.S., $50 trillion; by China, about $30 trillion; by the U.K., $8 trillion. In total, the bill would come to $250 trillion, more than half of all the wealth that exists in the world today.
These figures are a provocation — naïve, like many moral propositions. Carbon removal is not a one-click solution, as eager as the complacent consumers of the North are to believe in mirages of deliverance. It is more like the work of a century, and a planet, and much easier to imagine when contemplating the problem before a whiteboard wiped clean of politics and resistance than when planning an intervention in the real world. Reducing emissions by simple decarbonization — solar and wind and electric vehicles — is considerably cheaper. And talk of carbon removal puts the cart before the horse, since it would only be effective after a rapid transition to net-zero emissions: The more carbon we pump into the atmosphere, the harder the job it will be to remove it.
However naïve, the price of restoration is one way of calculating the climate debt imposed by certain people in certain places and times on other people in other places and times; that is, it is a way of articulating the scale of the ecological and humanitarian crime we are watching unfold, often pretending we are not perpetrating it ourselves. Working at the whiteboard, this would be the price of atonement…
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