Global warming: Blame the English

Keith Gaby

Who’s responsible for global warming? That is, what nations have put the most climate-changing pollution in the air?  It’s no small question in international discussions, as different countries point fingers and debate who should do the most to solve this crisis. Looking at overall emissions today paints one picture, but seeing the historical record may change your perspective.

Overall emissions

A recent report from Concordia University in Montreal details which countries have been the largest contributors to climate change, dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Not surprisingly, the world’s most powerful economy, the United States, has put the most pollution into the global atmosphere. In fact, we produced about one-fifth of all greenhouse gases over the last two centuries or so.

The top emitters also included three historically industrial economies and three emerging powerhouses. Russia kicked in 8% of the pollution, while Britain and Germany were each responsible for 5%. China has contributed 8% of historical emissions; and Brazil and India added 7% of the total.  In all, these seven countries produced more than 60% of all the greenhouse gas pollution since 1790.

Emissions on a per-capita basis

The picture is a little different when you look at it on a per-capita basis: That is, how much pollution does each country produce per person. From that point of view, Britain, which kicked-off the Industrial Revolution and has the smallest population of the seven, had the highest amount of pollution per citizen. The U.S. was second. China and India, with their large populations, were only 19th and 20th.  In other words, each Briton and American produces a lot more pollution than do people in China and India.

You might say that the historic records don’t matter. We need to cut pollution today, and the fact that a given country did or didn’t add pollution in the past is irrelevant. If China is the current top emitter, which it is, then who cares that they are historically below the U.S., or their per capita contribution is lower?

In one sense, that’s true.  What matters is cutting pollution today, and if China is polluting a lot then we can’t solve the problem unless China cuts emissions a lot. But look at it from their perspective for a moment. For two hundred years, Western nations have built wealth and power by burning fossil fuels. 

Now, just as China and India are working their way out of poverty – trying to bring up hundreds of millions up from deprivation to the kind of comfortable lives we have in the U.S. and Western Europe – they are being asking to radically cut their use of those fuels.  If the situations were reversed, I’m sure Americans would resent having to fix a problem created mostly by other people.

Acknowledging the past while improving the future

The fairest thing to do would be to require each country to contribute as much to the solution as they did to the problem. But, unfortunately, fairness won’t get the job done in this case.  The British, who as individuals did the most to cause it, are not going to be able to do the most to solve it – their economy is only 2.8% of world GDP. 

And the Chinese, who are 20th on the list as individuals, are collectively the world’s largest polluters, so they’re going to have to be a big part of the answer.  And with our vast economy, and position as the most influential nation, we are going to have to play a very big role.

So as we focus on what needs to be done, let’s not forget how we got here.  My tongue-in-cheek headline to this post aside, it’s not a matter of blame, it’s a matter of approaching the discussion with an understanding of the historical reality. As a great nation, we have to accept responsibility for leading the world toward a solution to a problem we had a lot to do with causing. 

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