Two defining issues of our time raise tough questions about the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world. A recent essay argued that the twin challenges of a global pandemic and climate change are similar because they force wealthy countries like the U.S. to rethink their global challenges and opportunities. Such discussions are not always pleasant.
Like the struggle to contain the worldwide spread of a lethal virus, the task of slowing the inadvertent but substantial alteration of our climate faces higher hurdles because any long-term solution to the problem requires cooperation between nations in vastly different situations. But there is an upside to the international dimension of the climate puzzle. The contributions of diverse countries worldwide working toward solutions offer greater chances for success than if each one was going it alone.
Our current understanding of the global interconnectedness of climate rests on a discovery of the pioneering geochemist Charles (Dave) Keeling. When the young researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began his meticulous measurements of carbon dioxide (the primary contributor to global warming) in the atmosphere during the late 1950s, he found that levels were pretty much the same all over the earth. Other environmental challenges were often local (e.g., dumping sewerage into the nearest river) or regional (sulfur dioxide blown to distant locations). But carbon dioxide was something different. Keeling’s data convinced skeptical scientists that it was a rare global pollutant.
One implication of Keeling’s data was that the nations with the most significant pollution do not, all things being equal, encounter the impacts of climate change any more than those with fewer emissions. Vulnerabilities to climate change around the world vary based on factors like latitude, altitude, and proximity to rising tides, not the location of greenhouse gas emissions. As a corollary, some countries with fewer resources experience massive impacts disproportionate to their relatively small contributions to the problem.
As a result, rich countries, oblivious to the damage they inflict elsewhere, may tilt toward adapting to climate change rather than revamp existing energy systems with massive carbon emissions. Countries with fewer resources of their own do not have sufficient resources to adapt. This disparity makes it hard to forge binding international agreements. So far, voluntary arrangements like the 2015 Paris Agreement have had to carry the load.
Other implications of a global pollutant like carbon involve a wonky policy concept called “leakage” – a term used decades ago by economists like Nobel Prize-winning William Nordhaus. For example, the U.S. economy has become more reliant on the growth of services industries as the manufacturing sector shrunk. We still use manufactured products, but there is a greater likelihood that they are made somewhere else, like China or Mexico. In such cases, U.S. emissions from industrial activities do not disappear; they “leak” to their new locations.
From a climate perspective, the offshoring of manufacturing reduces U.S. emissions of carbon below what they would have been otherwise. However, this cut in national emissions has little effect on global emissions or accumulations. Since carbon is a global pollutant, the impacts of climate on the United States will be roughly the same, whether the goods it uses are produced at home or abroad.
Critics of action to slow climate change muddy the debate by taking advantage of the public’s limited understanding of carbon leakage. For instance, think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies push the idea that solving the climate problem is mainly China’s problem. They have a point. China’s greenhouse gas emissions now surpass those of the entire membership of the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD). This stunning and relatively recent development means that what happens in China has immense consequences.
But the implication that the data from China somehow lessens the responsibility of the United States to contribute to global solutions is not well-founded. First, the OECD nations have been discharging vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere for a lot longer than the Chinese. That carbon remains part of the accumulation today. Second, Chinese emissions per capita are still well below those of the OECD.
Moreover, a nation like China, still trying to work its way out of poverty, should not be expected to reduce its emissions as rapidly as the more affluent countries just because it has a lot of people. Also, because of offshoring, China is making the products that we use. The leakage of carbon to other countries may make us feel more environmentally righteous but doesn’t reduce global emissions.
An accurate understanding of global pollution also helps better understand the current debate about oil production on lands owned by the U.S. government. It appears likely that production from private lands in the United States or foreign countries can replace any reductions in oil from federal sites. Due to impressive advances in extraction technologies, the world can produce more oil than any foreseeable need. Moreover, many oil-producing countries rely almost solely on these revenues. Significant voluntary cuts in production are not a viable option for them. Here, we have a different example of leakage. Thus, any attempts to shut down oil production in the Gulf of Mexico are unlikely to affect global levels of atmospheric carbon. Keeping domestic production with much stricter controls on methane emissions might actually reduce global impacts on the atmosphere.
If leakage creates hurdles to reducing emissions, it can also smooth the path toward lowering them. The necessity of working with countries around the world with different definitions of self-interest and different capabilities to cope should not be considered a reason to despair.
The race to solve climate change is, at its core, a race to develop new affordable technologies that allow us to move briskly away from traditional fossil fuels. It is better to have many countries working on advancing technology than just one. The history of making photovoltaic cells illustrates the value of multiple countries working to increase efficiencies and lower costs. When technical knowledge is transferred to other countries, that’s a good form of leakage. Patents and tariffs slow down technology transfer, but scientific information finds it easy to cross national borders.
We can cut global emissions by slashing the demand for fossil fuels. Most reductions in consumption will not pop up somewhere else in the world. Thus, with declining use, we avoid the leakage problem and achieve enduring results in protecting the earth’s natural environment.
For example, the United States has already made some progress in reducing oil demand with mandates for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Other countries have done likewise, with high gasoline taxes and other policy levers. But, unfortunately, these efforts, so far, have been too sporadic and too riddled with loopholes to effectively combat global climate change.
But we have a clear path ahead. We can put vehicle efficiency standards on steroids, accelerate the transition to electric (or perhaps in some niche markets, green hydrogen) vehicles. We can decarbonize the electric grid. Compared to problems like cement (see Bill Gates), reducing oil consumption from transportation has clear solutions and requires only the continuous improvement of technologies we already have.
Advances in electric propulsion, battery efficiency, or photovoltaic cells help reduce oil consumption worldwide. Many countries are helping develop needed technologies. Whether all-electric vehicles come from Tesla, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, or Geely, they can reduce emissions wherever they are driven. Vehicles powered by solar, wind, and nuclear power from the grid are global answers to a global problem.
When it comes to climate change, the people of the world are, for good or ill, all in the same boat. None of us escape its consequences. Blaming China or ignoring particularly vulnerable countries like Bangladesh doesn’t help. Mutually supportive innovation across national borders and demand reduction will.
Jay Hakes is the author of the recently published "Energy Crises: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Hard Choices in the 1970s." He is currently working on a book about the roots of the climate change debate from Eisenhower to Clinton.