Tackling Environmental Justice: Sovereign State against the Individual.

Last week, I started the discussion of how developing countries can contribute to alleviating anthropogenic (human caused) climate change.  The main goal is to mitigate climate change by achieving a global agreement to transition to more sustainable energy choices. I made mention of the important role efficiency could play for developing countries in using energy resources to enhance their GDP. (Interestingly, the same date that I posted last week also marks the beginning of the COP18 Doha Climate Change Conference to start the continuing efforts to reach global agreements on mitigation and adaptation policies.) Following Sandy’s impact on the most populated region in the States, and President Obama’s recent reelection, there is now some optimism that the United Stated might show heightened leadership in the struggle against climate change. I started the November 26 blog with Governor Romney’s response to a ScienceDebate question about his thoughts on Climate Change. I will repeat the quote here in order to emphasize a different issue:

The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

I would like to explore this claim that compares China to the United States in terms of overall responsibility to reduce its carbon footprint by shifting its energy sources. It is important because Governor Romney’s statement can be understood as advocating that as long as China does not reduce its carbon footprint, the US will follow suit, focusing only on R&D in order to not sacrifice economic advantages to China. The argument has a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) flavor that I discussed in a previous blog (June 18) – we recognize the need to act, but as long as China and other developing countries refuse to get involved, we will deny our own duty.

In the table below I ask undergraduates from my course (General Education – no prerequisites) to use primary sources to collect some relevant data about four countries and the World, and to answer a few questions by evaluating this data. I have filled in part of the table with the appropriate data for 2008 – the last year that data were available for the indicators in which I was interested.  

Fill up the following table:

Rank the four countries in terms of total energy use and CO2 emissions.

  1.   Compare (in %) the top user and emitter with World use and emission.
  2.   Rank the four countries in terms of energy use and CO2 emission per capita, and compare the numbers with global data.
  3.   If the GDP growth continues – how many years will it take China to catch up to the US?
  4.   If the GDP/Capita growth continues – how many years it will take China to catch up to the US?
  5.   What will the World’s GDP be at that time?
  6.   What will the World’s population be at that time?
  7.   If you assume that the last three terms of the IPAT equation will not change – what will the World’s CO2 emission be at that time?
  8.   Assume that only half of the emissions will stay in the atmosphere and that the Climate Sensitivity is 2.50C for doubling the concentration of CO2 compared to the pre-industrial levels – what will the climate consequences of 8 be?

Problems started with the first question – Half of the class has ranked both energy use and Carbon Dioxide emission in the following order – US, Germany, China and India.

Now – try it yourself and make a comment.

Large outcry was heard when answering the second question – “Professor – how it can be that the top energy user (US) is using 417% of the World’s total usage? Isn’t the US part of the World?”

Good question – yes it is. When Governor Romney uses carbon emissions from China and the US as criteria for needed efforts to curtail these emissions – what number should he be using – the number per person or the number per country? For me, it is a simple issue of Environmental Justice – every person is equal in his or her right for economic development, and comparisons should be based on people, not countries.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
This entry was posted in Climate Change and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Tackling Environmental Justice: Sovereign State against the Individual.

  1. Pingback: India – the Global Lighthouse | ClimateChangeFork

  2. Valentina says:

    You should take part in a contest for oone of the greatest blogs
    online. I most certtainly will recommend this website!

  3. Global warming is a concerning issue for the world. it is not only China but other countries are contributing it too. Rapid spread of awareness among the people of the world the disastrous conditions it can create may be can help in reducing it. Planting more trees and decreased emission of greenhouse gases can help largely.

  4. Pingback: Conflicts and Navigation | ClimateChangeFork

  5. Toby says:

    In “Fear of Physics”, Lawrence Krauss tells the story of a certain University that does a bit of outreach by sending an accountant (sometimes an economist), a biologist and a physicist (sometimes an applied mathematician) out to talk to a group from a local farming community.

    The accountants talks about taxation, how to keep accounts and the wider market. He is warmly applauded. The biologist talks about breeding and hybridization. S/he is warmly applauded.

    The the physicist/ mathematician goes to the board and draws a circle. “Now”, he says, ” Assume this sphere is a cow”. Of course, he loses his audience straightaway.

    Krauss shows how a sphere is actually a good model of a cow for the simple explanation the physicist may have been trying to give. He uses Enrico Fermi’s famous problem “How many piano tuners in Chicago?” as an illustration of the type of practical thinking that physicists and applied mathematicians need to be able to perform to set useful bounds on results before they wheel out heavier mathematics.


    Possibly, Mike, and I would not dare give you “advice”, maybe you could have started with simple examples of Stefan’s Law, building up to Planck’s Law and Lambert’s Law to illustrate the concept of greenhouse gases and their effects. You may have jumped too far ahead for your audience, and they were clearly not as aware of radiation physics as you assumed.

    Knowing you, I am sure you will put your experience to good use in improving your next talk, and the ones after that.

  6. Susanna Vass says:

    There is much to say about the way the post talks about who has responsibility for mitigating the worst effects of climate change, by curbing industrial emissions that are the byproducts of economic activity all over the world. There is for one some merit in the discussion relating to just how much responsibility America has in this regard, given the scale of its economic and industrial activities and its contribution to worldwide carbon dioxide emissions tied to such activities. Romney said that China, and not the US, is the one with the hands in the cookie jar so to speak, because it contributes the largest amount of greenhouse gases to the worldwide environment, having long ago surpassed America in this regard. Moreover, the argument here is that America cannot just curb its emissions on its own, because such curbing necessarily means pulling the reins on economic activity. This would put America at a disadvantage, in the likely event that China does nothing in the same direction and continues pursuing economic and industrial expansion at breakneck speed, the environment and the global warming problem be damned. Then the post talks about what developing nations can do to contribute to solving the problem and the potential actions are in the area of using cleaner energy sources, and using energy in more efficient ways. The problem with this latter focus is that, apart from China and the larger developing economies such as India maybe, and Brazil, the smaller nations do not matter as much as these larger nations do, in terms of the contribution to global warming from emissions. The gridlock is with China and the US, both not moving because curtailing emissions from one side may not be reciprocated by similar actions on the other side of the fence. There are few economic incentives to curb emissions at present, and only detriment to the country that pulls back on emissions on its own (ClimateChangeFork (b)).

  7. sailrick says:

    China’s historical contribution to CO2 in the atmosphere is less than a third that of the U.S.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *