The American ‘99%’ as part of the global ‘1%’ in contributing to climate change


In response to our post on The Occupy Movement and the Climate Movement, we received two comments that raise issues suggesting a need to expand the discussion. We argued that the climate movement has much to learn and potentially adopt from Occupy’s ‘99% vs. 1%’ framing of corporate power and its influence on government policy.  One commenter suggested, however, that “most people living in the US are the 1% from an emissions perspective.” What does this mean for fair cost-sharing, domestically and internationally, which is at the heart of the climate policy problem? 

Post by Katherine O’Konski and Rick Piltz

Another commenter said:

“By pointing fingers at the 1%, people can pretend that they themselves are not the problem.  This is … certainly wrong when it comes to the climate. … No doubt growing income inequality and corporate power over politics are critical problems that must be addressed. But this must leave room for a grown-up discussion of how the upper 80% or so in rich countries happily contribute to the problem.”

Of course, Americans are some of the top carbon polluters in the world, emitting 17.6 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2009, and 5.4 billion tonnes of CO2 for that year in total, according to International Energy Statistics (IES).  While North America emitted 6.9 billion tones of CO2 in 2008, African countries together emitted only 1.2 billion tonnes.  Only China emits more carbon than the US, though on a per capita basis, their 5.8 tonnes per person pales in comparison to the US equivalent. An easy to use comparison table of emissions data, sourced from IES, can be found in a January 2011 Guardian article.

A discussion of Climate Change Adaptation in a Post-Durban World at the Brookings Institution here in Washington, DC, on January 6 included some commentary relevant to expanding the discussion of the responsibility of the ‘99%’ in the United States vis-à-vis the low-income countries. Nancy Birdsall, President of the Center for Global Development, addressed the difficulties with the transfer of climate change adaptation funds from rich to poor counties. This issue was central to the recent Durban COP-17 climate summit, which marked the launch of a new Green Climate Fund for this purpose.  A transcript of her comments can be found here; an audio recording is on the Brookings event page.

Her argument can be considered radical in that it elevated the climate change problem to one of moral justice – the obligations of the rich to the poor. In this way, her comments corresponded to Ash Anderson’s comments during the Occupy and Climate teleconference we covered in December, where he asserted that climate change, being a moral issue, requires a solution through changes in power relationships and culture.

If we are to look at global disparities in greenhouse gas emissions as a climate justice problem, Birdsall suggests that adaptation finance as a solution should be viewed, not as a matter of charitable donations, but rather as an obligation to provide funding based on ‘causal responsibility’.

The rich have, though not purposefully, increased the vulnerability of the world’s poor to global climate disruption through the emissions of greenhouse gases from the fossil energy sources that have fueled the economic development that made them rich. The most severe impacts of climate change are likely to manifest themselves in the poorest nations, which are both environmentally vulnerable and lacking in the financial and institutional resources required for adaptation.

What are the ongoing obligations of the rich to the poor, and how do we make sure these are met?  If rich nations, the US especially as the ‘1%’ in carbon emissions, accept their obligation to help their poorer counterparts, a corresponding financial obligation would call for clear stipulations as to which countries are obliged to donate, and which are entitled to receive.  In order to decide which countries are obligated to transfer funds, Birdsall recommends a weighted formula that would take into account (1) past and current emissions and (2) per capita income.  On the other side of the equation, entitlement would take into account (1) a country’s assessed vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and (2) per capita income as a proxy for the poor’s resilience.

Perhaps satisfactory from a moral standpoint, this broad formulation presents problems.  First, though the formulaic structure of obligation is built upon the principles of the 2005 Paris Declaration that was meant to assess the effectiveness of aid through ownership, transparency, clarity, etc., it contradicts the past 60 years of thinking in donor countries about aid and funds transfers.

Recognizing Americans as a nation being the ‘1%’ in terms of greenhouse gas emissions presents an interesting dilemma – it introduces a moral problem which theoretically has a solution that emerging institutions like the Green Climate Fund could be developed to carry out.  Yet it also raises the questions of which countries are obligated to transfer funds to which countries, and how much? And how should funds be managed and accounted for once they are transferred?

The broad ‘entitlement’ formulation provides no assurance that the money provided by the taxpayers in rich countries will be well-utilized. How will rich countries ensure that their donations under this system are used effectively once in the hands of the poorer nations?  “Americans are not going to put their money on the table…unless it’s clear that the money is going to be spent in the right places reasonably well,” Birdsall concluded.  She suggested that recipient countries should develop, with assistance as needed, business plans for using adaptation funding.  And that, once transferred, the implementation of the plans and use of the funds be monitored by a third party independent of both the funders and the recipients.

Of course, getting the US to buy in to this ‘rich countries obligated to transfer funds to poor countries as an entitlement’ framing is no doubt politically impossible under current conditions. If we recognize not only the top 1% of Americans as contributing to climate change, but also the country as a whole being the ‘1%’ in greenhouse gas emissions, we become obligated to assist the most vulnerable populations in the rest of the world in seeking to adapt to the resulting climate change impacts.  However, it seems that Americans acknowledging and recognizing themselves as the global 1% is not sufficient to itself lead to a solution to the climate change problem. Even getting Americans to agree to act on a climate justice basis would not resolve how we then deal with it to create effective solutions.

Given American’s current attitudes on climate change and the Kyoto Protocol, it seems unlikely that the US will accept this moral obligation-entitlement framing of the climate change problem any time soon.  Perhaps framing the climate movement in terms of the 99% vs 1% within the US will help change the culture and political atmosphere to make it more hospitable to a 99%-1% international perspective on climate change.  Hopefully, it will help Americans realize that cutting down greenhouse gas emissions is not only in the US 99%’s best interest, but also the best interest of the world’s poor.

One of the questioners at the Brookings Institution event raised the question, wouldn’t it be better to find a way to target adaptation funds directly to aiding poor and vulnerable populations, i.e., not necessarily directly to governments and their ruling elites?  Apart from the practical considerations, this suggests another issue, that of inequality – the 1% and the 99%, so to speak – within developing countries.  While the wealthy and powerful are found in greatest numbers, by far, in North America and Europe, the rest of the world – in China and the rest of Asia, in Latin America and Africa – also has its 1%.  And their relationships with their own people can be highly problematic. How to design a global climate change adaptation policy framework that works for those who need it most?

Fair cost-sharing is at the heart of the international climate policy problem. If the US is to assume the obligation, the burden, of funding adaptation in developing countries, the policy must be designed so that: (1) the burden is borne equitably within the US and high-income countries, (2) the benefits are shared equitably within the low-income developing countries, and (3) the relationships between the high-income and low-income countries are equitable. In light of these criteria, the radical and growing economic inequality and lack of fairness that the Occupy movement has called attention to so vividly poses an enormous obstacle to solving the climate change policy problem.

See: Eco-Equity, Occupy and the climate negotiations

Earlier post:  On the Durban climate conference, Part 2: The problem of international distributional equity


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