Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent
header_02 home about login header_06
sidebar-top content-top

Will the Polluters Pay for Climate Change?

Peter SingerPeter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. His books include Writings on an Ethical Life and One World. His most recent book, co-authored with Jim Mason, is The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. His last piece on Webdiary was Happiness, Money, and Giving It Away

by Peter Singer

I am writing this in New York in early August, when the mayor declared a "heat emergency" to prevent widespread electricity outages from the expected high use of air conditioners. City employees could face criminal charges if they set their thermostats below 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.5 Celsius). Nevertheless, electricity usage has reached near-record levels.

Meanwhile California has emerged from its own record-breaking heat wave. For the United States as a whole, the first six months of 2006 were the hottest in more than a century. Europe is experiencing an unusually hot summer, too. July set new records in England and the Netherlands, where weather data go back more than 300 years.

The hot northern summer fits well with the release of An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film featuring former US Vice-President Al Gore. Using some remarkable graphs, images, and other information, the film makes a compelling case that our carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming, or, at the very least, contributing to it, and that we must urgently address the issue.

Americans tend to talk a lot about morality and justice. But most Americans still fail to realize that their country’s refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol, and their subsequent business–as-usual approach to greenhouse gas emissions, is a moral failing of the most serious kind. It is already having harmful consequences for others, and the greatest inequity is that it is the rich who are using most of the energy that leads to the emissions that cause climate change, while it is the poor who will bear most of the costs. (To see what you can do to reduce your own contribution, go to www.climatecrisis.net.)

To see the inequity, I merely have to glance up at the air conditioner that is keeping my office bearable. While I’ve done more than the mayor requested, setting it at 82F (27C), I’m still part of a feedback loop. I deal with the heat by using more energy, which leads to burning more fossil fuel, putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heating up the planet more. It even happened when I watched An Inconvenient Truth: on a warm evening, the cinema was so chilly that I wished I had brought a jacket.

Heat kills. A heat wave in France in 2003 caused an estimated 35,000 deaths, and a hot spell similar to the one Britain had last month caused more than 2,000 deaths, according to official estimates. Although no particular heat wave can be directly attributed to global warming, it will make such events more frequent. Moreover, if global warming continues unchecked, the number of deaths that occur when rainfall becomes more erratic, causing both prolonged droughts and severe floods, will dwarf the death toll from hot weather in Europe. More frequent intense hurricanes will kill many more. Melting polar ice will cause rising seas to inundate low-lying fertile delta regions on which hundreds of millions of people grow their food. Tropical diseases will spread, killing still more people.

Overwhelmingly, the dead will be those who lack the resources to adapt, to find alternative sources of food, and who do not have access to health care. Even in rich countries, it usually isn’t the rich who die in natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, those who died were the poor in low-lying areas who lacked cars to escape. If this is true in a country like the US, with a reasonably efficient infrastructure and the resources to help its citizens in times of crisis, it is even more evident when disasters strike developing countries, because their governments lack the resources needed, and because, when it comes to foreign assistance, rich nations still do not count all human lives equally.

According to United Nations figures, in 2002 per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the US were 16 times higher than in India, 60 times higher than in Bangladesh, and more than 200 times higher than in Ethiopia, Mali, or Chad. Other developed nations with emissions close to those of the US include Australia, Canada, and Luxembourg. Russia, Germany, Britain, Italy, France, and Spain all have levels between a half and a quarter that of the US. This is still significantly above the world average, and more than 50 times that of the poorest nations in which people will die from global warming.

If a polluter harms others, those who are harmed normally have a legal remedy. For example, if a factory leaks toxic chemicals into a river that I use to irrigate my farm, killing my crops, I can sue the factory owner. If the rich nations pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, causing my crops to fail because of changing rainfall patterns, or my fields are inundated by a rise in the sea level, shouldn’t I also be able to sue?

Camilla Toulmin, who directs the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based NGO, was present at a lecture on climate change that Al Gore gave in June. She asked him what he thought about compensation for those who are hit hardest by climate change, but who have done the least to cause it. The question, she reports on www.opendemocracy.net, seemed to take him by surprise, and he did not support the idea. Like Toulmin, I wonder if this is a truth that is just too inconvenient, even for him.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Who will pay for the clean up of China?

“One third of China is suffering from acid rain caused by rapid industrial growth, an official report quoted by the state media says.” BBC News.

As China industrialises its economy, the pollution created in the process is wreaking havoc all over China.

We all benefit from the flood of cheap products from China, but who will pay for the clean up?

Climate change may encourage population to move North.

Thanks Jenny, I will watch four corners tonight. By the way I don't live on a desert island. I live in paradise, Cairns. It's 30 degress outside at the moment, blue skies and the grass is green. Our local dam is overflowing, although it hasn't rained for a few weeks. We measure our rainfall in metres (over two metres last year).

I am not sure why people live in the South. I moved North a few years ago. Climate change means more rain for us.

El Nino - Just great!

John, I only got to see half of the 4 Corners program and fell asleep! Damn. But I did see enough to realise just how out of touch John Howard is on the issue of climate change. He will be the last skeptic standing at this rate. But it is good to see the big end of town at last coming together to work out what can and must be done. Such a trend does gives some hope.

Meanwhile, the ABC tells us tonight we are likely headed into another El NIno and a very long hot summer. That is all we need! But with the SOI running negative to around -16 now it does not look good. It will be a total catastrophe for many farmers if that is true as we are are not out of the effects of the last six years' big dry yet, and I see widespread hand feeding of stock as we go into Spring. What a disaster this will be. 

As for cities like Goulburn which are so short of water, (on Level 5 restrictions now for going on three years), it will also be a catastrophe. Let us just hope for once the weather man has got it wrong.

The instability in the world we face now will be nothing to what we will face as global warming really bites.

Cairns. Yes, lovely town, lucky place with all that water. Don't waste it!

Reduce your CO2 contribution to zero

A chance to put our money where our mouth is. Carbon offsets are a way to reduce our own CO2 contribution to Zero!

"Carbon offsets enable individuals and businesses to reduce the CO2 emissions they are responsible for by offsetting, reducing or displacing the CO2 in another place, typically where it is more economical to do so. Carbon offsets typically include renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects. As more and more people are concerned about global warming and seeking to reduce their climate impact, carbon offsets, along with personal carbon reductions, provide an important solution to global warming.

Example: a mid-sized 30 mpg car driving 12,000 miles/year will create about 3.55 tons of CO2/year. Using Carbonfund.org's calculator we figured this would cost only about $19.50 or $1.63/month to be offset! This means that for a very small amount of money you can drive the equivalent of a zero-CO2-emission car!"

See www.ecobusinesslinks.com.

What price the Great Barrier Reef?

The world’s coral reefs could disappear within a few decades along with hundreds of species of plankton and shellfish, according to new studies into man’s impact on the oceans.

Researchers have found that carbon dioxide, the gas already blamed for causing global warming, is also raising the acid levels in the sea. The shells of coral and other marine life dissolve in acid. The process is happening so fast that many such species, including coral, crabs, oysters and mussels, may become unable to build and repair their shells and will die out, say the researchers.

See here.

Ian Macfarlane says a carbon tax, will increase the cost of electricity to consumers, and it will increase the cost of petrol to motorists.

See here.

If the price of saving hundreds of species of shell fish and the Great Barrier Reef is an increase in the cost of electricity and fuel there is no choice.

We must save the reef!

Reef and drought etc - Four corners

John: Four Corners tonight is covering these issues if you get a chance to watch it. This assumes you do not live on a desert island somewhere!

90% of NSW and large swathes of QLD are still in drought, and without rain in the next month much of the grain crops will again be lost or substantially reduced. I note those next to us are already wilting on the plains out here from moisture stress, with those further south just getting going, very late, with the odd shower or two. Our average rainfall used to be 19-20 inches out here, but in the past six, now going on seven years, we have had between 8-15 inches and are still in drought. We now no longer expect it to rain. We just assume that it will not and have reduced carrying capacity accordingly.

I note Sydney is now looking at the aquifers – those that are not polluted, that is. One wonders when people will really wake up to the water catastrophe this country is fast heading into. Aquifers, like dams, require rainfall to replenish. People seem to forget that small fact. Bores in some areas are already dry.

Concerning re-afforestation and land clearing, there is a lot of aggro in NSW over the new property vegetation requirements under the new Native Vegetation laws. There are trees and there is scrub. Until the difference is understood this issue will not be resolved. Preserving or allowing native scrub to invade open grasslands protects neither diversity nor the soil, and certainly reduces productivity of such land to zero with property devaluation the natural consequence. If the Government wants farmers to shut up large tracts of their land to allow scrub to grow back, thus rendering it valueless, then adequate compensation should be paid. Phil Kendall talks about theft. Well if your asset is to be locked up for the environment, thus losing 80% or more of its value, is that not a form of theft? It is not so long ago that farmers were only allowed to buy/lease western land, provided they followed a clearing program and brought it into productivity! They did this at enormous cost.

So there is a real need for greater consultation to determine what exactly constitutes re-afforestation on pastoral lands. This week farmers blockaded inspectors going onto a property of neighbours and this confrontation will continue with farmer groups now springing up everywhere determined to fight what they see as unfair laws which will devalue their land in more than monetary terms.

I am not sure what benefit scrub as opposed to trees has on reducing CO2 levels. One bush that is a good source of fodder is saltbush and we are growing that successfully in trial areas and would plant it on a larger scale if carbon credits could be traded.

Just a few thoughts. Cheers.

Murray River at its lowest since records began!

The ABC is reporting that the water level in the Murray River is at its lowest since records began more than 100 years ago.  Here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200608/s1717177.htm

When will our Political leaders take Climate Change seriously?

The Howard government is incompetent and should be thrown out. The future of Australia is at stake.  


Sleepwalking into an Apocalypse!

"Premiers and chief ministers have released a discussion paper on a scheme to set national emission targets for the three main greenhouse polluting gases - carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. But Mr Howard has told Parliament the proposal would cripple the resource industry, cause jobs to disappear and impose even higher fuel prices. " According to ABARE [Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics], a 50 per cent cut in Australian emissions by 2050 would lead to a 10 per cent fall in GDP, a 20 per cent fall in real wages, a carbon price equivalent to doubling of petrol prices and a staggering 600 per cent rise in electricity and gas prices," he said.”

Here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200608/s1716573.htm

“Planetary changes which were supposed to occur toward the end of the century, according to scientific computer models, are actually happening today. Dr. Paul Epstein, a leading climate researcher at Harvard Medical School, citing the rapid intensification of storms around the world, said: "We are seeing [storm] impacts today that were previously projected to occur in 2080." Other examples include:

* The Greenland ice sheet, one of the largest glaciers on the planet, is melting from above and losing its stability as meltwater from the surface trickles down and lubricates the bedrock on which the ice sheet sits. Should that ice sheet slide into the ocean, it would raise sea levels on the order of 20 feet. The rate of sea level rise has already doubled in the last decade as a result of melting glaciers and the thermal expansion of warming oceans.

* The proportion of severely destructive hurricanes that have reached category 4 and 5 intensity has doubled in the past thirty years, fueled by rising surface water temperatures.

* Oceans are becoming acidified from the fallout of our fossil fuel emissions. The ph level of the world's oceans has changed more in the last 100 years than it did in the previous 10,000 years.

Those troubling signals are made all the more disturbing by the fact that climate change does not necessarily follow a linear, incremental trajectory. As the climate system crosses invisible thresholds, it is capable of large-scale, unpredictable leaps. "[T]here are tipping points out there that could be passed before we're halfway through the century," said Tim Lenton, an earth systems modeller at Britain's University of East Anglia. That reality is compounded by the fact that carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas, stays in the atmosphere for at least 100 years. Some of the impacts that are surfacing today were likely triggered by carbon emitted in the 1980s, before the recent burst of carbon-powered development in China, India, Mexico, Nigeria and other developing countries.

And then there is the problem of "feedback loops," which means that small changes caused by warming can trigger other much larger changes. For example, the Siberian and Alaskan tundras, which for centuries absorbed carbon dioxide and methane, are now thawing and releasing those gases back into the atmosphere. A rapid release of greenhouse gases from these regions could trigger a spike in warming. Scientists recently detected a weakening of the flow of ocean currents in the Atlantic basin because of an infusion of freshwater from melting sea ice and glaciers. At a certain point, they say, the change in salinity and water density could change the direction of ocean currents, leading to much more bitter and severe winters in northern Europe and North America.

In the face of these changes, the press remains largely in denial. The environmental movement seems to have gone into hibernation. And the Bush Administration has turned its back on the challenge. We are, as the British paper, The Independent, put it, "sleepwalking into an Apocalypse."

Here: http://www.heatisonline.org/contentserver/objecthandlers/index.cfm?id=5896&method=full

ABARE is worried that the introduction of national emission targets could bring about a 10 per cent fall in GDP, a 20 per cent fall in real wages, a carbon price equivalent to doubling of petrol prices and a staggering 600 per cent rise in electricity and gas prices. What is the cost of doing nothing? Possibly the end of the world as we know it.

Inaction could mean the total collapse of the Global economy.

“The problem of drought has always been with us; but there seems to be an unusual number of drought warnings being issued for 2006.” Here:http://www.continuitycentral.com/feature0285.htm


More than 60 percent of the United States now has abnormally dry or drought conditions, stretching from Georgia to Arizona and across the north through the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana and Wisconsin, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln


“Brad Rippey, a federal Agriculture Department meteorologist in Washington, said this year's drought is continuing one that started in the late 1990s. "The 1999 to 2006 drought ranks only behind the 1930s and the 1950s. It's the third-worst drought on record — period,"


Here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060730/ap_on_re_us/northern_plains_drought_6



Australia is experiencing its most severe drought in a century and its third worst in history.


In Queensland, the state on Australia's east coast just north of New South Wales, ancient gum trees are dying, The Times said. The town of Thargomindah, on the Bulloo River in the south western part of the state, has just had its first rain for nearly five years.”



Here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/upi/index.php?feed=TopNews&article=UPI-1-20060722-13413600-bc--australia-drought.xml



With a large part of the planet in a drought so severe that most of us have never lived through anything like it, our politicians argue over building dams to catch rain which may never come. The planet’s ability to support an ever increasing human population is in doubt.



We worry about the effect of a .25 percent increase in interest rates. It is about time the leaders of the world realised the real issues facing us in the next few years: climate change and peak oil.



Another $10 increase in the price of oils is imminent due to a close down of an Alaskan pipeline. Here: Oil prices could increase by as much as $10 per barrel given the current environment," Emori said. "But we can't really say for sure how big an effect this is going to have until we have more exact figures about how much production is going to be reduced."



Here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060807/ap_on_bi_ge/oil_field_shutdown_9



As the cost of oil goes up and the droughts around the globe increase the cost of food production. Many countries will not be able to feed their population. We must act now and reduce our use of fossil fuels. The war in the Middle East will be the least of our worries if we do not face up to the challenge. A carbon tax and the urgent move to alternate fuels are necessary now. We must urge our politicians to sign the Kyoto treaty and be leaders in the move away from fossil fuels.



The price we will pay for inaction could be the total collapse of the global economy.
























Creeping change

John, yes, that is all so true. I did not realise the US was having such bad drought though.

This week for the first time when I asked a big wheat grower out this way why he had decided to sell, he cited global warming as the main reason. Retirement played a part, but it seems global warming and the continuous drought out here (despite some recent rain which seems to have been yet another one off!) is now influencing people to leave the land for good. The wheat sheep belt has the largest loss of population than any other rural area over the past ten years. Sheep numbers are in decline which to me is not a bad thing as they devastate the land when it is dry and no till farming is practised more and more by croppers.

In the 15 years we have been here drought years have outnumbered non drought years by around four to one and the past six years have been almost permanent drought, with a few months relief here and there. There is no sign of that changing this year. Our stock carrying capacity has fallen overall by a third at least, with total destocking in two of the past six years for periods up to 12 months.

Some years ago an expert in kangaroos came here to discuss management plans, and was surprised to see the big reds on our place. He said normally they are found much further west and north on the dry plains country. They are now a permanent part of the landscape here. I have written also on other threads about the masive invasion of western woody weed species, usually confined to drier sandy country.  I see it as early signs of creeping ecological change which are only noticeable if you live close to the land and nature.

And of course there is Lake George, in the southern tablelands, normally 19 miles long, seven wide has now been totally dry for three years. It used to support thousands of birds of many species. And plant species normally confined to the northern slopes are also establishing there. One climatologist said it was as if Australia had shifted north by 100kms. I would suggest it is much further than that.

As Peter Singer says, it will be the poor nations that will suffer the most if the energy guzzling west does not change its ways. And people use power without realising the role water plays in the generation of power.  Until we stop living as if tomorrow will take care of itself, then I think things will get a whole lot worse before they get better. The only bright spot is that the devastating hurricanes in the US seem to be waking the US up at last to the fact that it too will be a victim of global warming. I think it is scandalous that one of the greatest user nations of energy on earth has been doing so little in regard to this issue.

I think Australia will have to look in the future to assisted immigration of Pacific Island populations as seas rise. And it will behove the western nations to resettle all those affected, and not on Nauru either!

Cheers .

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
© 2005-2011, Webdiary Pty Ltd
Disclaimer: This site is home to many debates, and the views expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the site editors.
Contributors submit comments on their own responsibility: if you believe that a comment is incorrect or offensive in any way,
please submit a comment to that effect and we will make corrections or deletions as necessary.
Margo Kingston Photo © Elaine Campaner

Recent Comments

David Roffey: {whimper} in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Jenny Hume: So long mate in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Reds (under beds?) in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 days ago
Justin Obodie: Why not, with a bang? in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Dear Albatross in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 days ago
Michael Talbot-Wilson: Good luck in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 4 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Goodnight and good luck in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 6 days ago
Margo Kingston: bye, babe in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 2 days ago