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Decarbonize, But Pay Your Fair Share, Says Bill McKibben

Current US distaste for foreign aid will be an impediment for the US to pay its part for the climate crisis.

Reducing US emissions isn’t enough to satisfy “our moral and practical burdens,” says climate activist Bill McKibben. The US has already put so much carbon into the air “that we need to make amends.” So, as it decarbonizes, McKibben argues, the US needs to help other countries to foot their carbon bills.

“That is the only honorable and only sensible course; they don’t call it global warming for nothing,” McKibben, founder of 350.org, reminds us. “You can’t control it anywhere without controlling it everywhere.”

But the climate activist isn’t really optimistic. “Our political debate has poisoned the idea of foreign aid in recent years, and it will be a hard lift for the Biden Administration to come close to meeting the requirements of justice.”

In a recent New Yorker editorial, McKibben brings to light a new report that attaches numbers to the often “airy moral terms” associated with meeting climate goals. The report is an effort to quantify the US Climate Fair Share and was conducted by the US Climate Action Network (USCAN), which works to meet and exceed the US targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.

USCAN is a range of organizations from state and locally focused grassroots groups to international NGOs that dually challenge global climate change and global inequality alongside measures to ensure that US climate action is appropriately considered.

To Decarbonize Means To Extend Beyond US Borders

The new report tries to calculate how much of the burden each country should be bearing to decarbonize, based on its historical contribution to the cloud of greenhouse gases and its capacity to pay — a reflection of how rich the nation became during the fossil-fuel era. The US is “the richest country the world has ever known and one that even now has vast influence on other countries,” the report outlines, so “it is of utmost importance to people around the globe that a comprehensive US climate plan take into account the world outside our own borders.”

The report finds “that the US fair share of the global mitigation effort in 2030 is equivalent to a reduction of 195% below its 2005 emissions levels, reflecting a fair share range of 173-229%.”

Tom Athanasiou, from the California-based nonprofit called EcoEquity, wrote a recent Sierra Club editorial offering background into fair share thinking. Climate justice, he relates, “demands the presence of real and meaningful fairness and an extremely ambitious climate mobilization that takes this fairness just as seriously as decarbonization itself.”

But Athanasiou sees potential when global groups work together. “Bringing down greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures (more or less) in check is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” he admits, noting that the green technology revolution and changing political landscape are starting places.

He offers a framework where the US can reduce 195% below its 2005 emissions levels.

  1. Reductions of 70% would be domestic. This is about the maximum achievable by 2030, though cuts of this magnitude would require a full-on Green New Deal and an industrial transition on par with a World War II–scale mobilization.
  2. The other 125% would come by way of financial and technological support for adaptation and rapid decarbonization in developing countries, at rates that exceed and sometimes far exceed their own fair shares.

He says these numbers make international sense. Fair shares are, by definition, shares in a single planetary effort to stabilize our shared climate system. Right now, over 100 countries are working toward net zero 2050 (or, in China’s case, 2060) goals, which Athanasiou feels “is a fantastically important and welcome development.”

This cohort includes wealthy countries like Norway, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea and will soon include both the European Union and the US — “but not a single one has made anything like an adequate move to support ambitious decarbonization plans in the developing world.”

The report invites reciprocal action to decarbonize on the same scale by other countries to make the stabilization of the climate system possible. It also serves two other major purposes:

  • It communicates, with the weight of a rigorous methodology and broad acceptance from US and global civil society, a level of necessary action that is well beyond any previously adopted US policy (e.g., the Obama administration pledge to the Paris agreement was 26-28% reductions 2030). It is, indeed, more ambitious than the Sanders Green New Deal plan, which — using the same methodology but slightly different ethical assumptions — aimed for the equivalent of 161% reductions by 2030.
  • It asserts that the US fair share is too large to be met through domestic emissions reductions alone. Therefore, it casts the provision of finance and technological support for additional reductions in poorer countries as an integral part of the US climate obligation, without which we have no hope of meeting the 1.5°C goal. For instance, to hold the position embodied in USCAN’s Vision for Equitable Climate Action means that the US must reduce domestic emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030. The US must do its fair share to decarbonize (the equivalent of reducing emissions by 125% by 2030) by way of international support.
decarbonize

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Final Thoughts

This year is on track to be one of the 3 hottest on record, completing a run of 6 years that were all hotter than any year ever measured before, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed. “The average global temperature in 2020 is set to be about 1.2 °C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level. There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5 °C by 2024,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a recent statement.

In a landmark speech in New York on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared the fight against the climate crisis was the top priority for the 21st century. “We saw a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic, including unprecedented back-to-back category 4 hurricanes in Central America in November,” he explained. “Flooding in parts of Africa and South East Asia led to massive population displacement and undermined food security for millions.”

Citizens in these countries will now have an even harder time paying for a changed energy system to help it convert to clean energy, McKibben argues. A country like Honduras must now replace its commitments to the Paris climate accord to reconstruction plans focused on rebuilding the bridges and roads that the storms destroyed.

As Athanasiou suggests, “The challenge is sprawling, but its moral logic is clear.” To decarbonize is more than a national goal, and the US must buy in, as to refuse to reject “extreme inequality is a deadly social poison. We cannot hope to decarbonize the planetary economy unless we refuse it.”


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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. As part of her portfolio divestment, she purchased 5 shares of Tesla stock. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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