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Who Goes First on Greenhouse Gases?

2:15 PM, Apr 20, 2009 • By BRIAN FAUGHNAN
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Later this year, the United States will join other U.N. members in negotiations in Copenhagen to update the Kyoto accord on greenhouse gas emissions. While the Obama administration says it is devoted to the treaty, reaching an agreement will be difficult. One of the most contentious issues facing negotiators is who goes first on greenhouse gas reduction.

There's an assumption on the part of many that the developed nations should go first, since they are wealthier and emit more -- at least right now. But AEI scholar Kenneth Green points out that the advanced West has been more 'responsible' than the third world -- adopting environmentally-friendly capitalist and pluralist reforms before undertaking industrialization. As a result, they hit their peak periods of greenhouse gas emission while their populations were comparatively small. Further, they created social welfare programs that enabled them to reduce population growth -- another factor which limits their overall production of greenhouse gases.

Green argues that the less-developed countries by contrast, are basically trying to act as 'free riders:'

Developing countries, by contrast, were not willing or able to muster the political will to adopt democratic-capitalist institutions. The leaders of developing countries, chose, with the tacit or overt agreement of their populations, communitarian, fascist, dictatorial, or other social institutions that perpetuated a reliance on large, extended families and thus rapid population growth, while retarding economic growth and suppressing people's desires for environmental protection.

Thus, in the thousand-year scheme of things that is climate change, the developing countries, by deferring development until their populations were vastly larger than those of the developed world, will have a vastly larger impact on the world's ecology and (if man-made GHGs really have a potent and deleterious ecological influence) the world's climate.

Looking back 300 years from now, the initial pulse of GHGs from the developed world will pale in comparison to the titanic flux of GHGs (and other conventional and water pollutants) that the developing world will emit as it develops. And, unlike the developed world, which largely completed development before there was even a small understanding of the risk of climate change or air pollution, the developing world is polluting with the full knowledge that their emissions can cause environmental damage, harm existing populations, and burden future generations.

This is more than just an academic argument. The U.S. is a responsible actor -- probably the world's most responsible actor -- in terms of leading the world to become more environmentally aware, and creating the wealth to tackle environmental problems. Why then should Americans disproportionately bear the burden of tackling the extremely-costly 'global warming challenge?' Further, is it even possible to do anything about the 'problem' if we look the other way while the world's biggest offenders get a pass and make the problem worse, at precisely the time the world is trying to fix it?

The global-warming alarmist community has argued that we're in a sinking boat and we need to start bailing. But what hope is there for our boat if the advanced west is bailing with a teaspoon while less-developed countries are hauling in water by the bucket? There's no point to a costly agreement that rewards the worst offenders and does nothing to solve the 'problem.'