The Different Concerns of Rich and Poor
It is no secret that the less-developed nations wish for the industrial nations to cut back on emissions, with the argument that “you caused the problem, you bear the consequences.” To a neutral observer (such as a scientist is supposed to be) this stance would not seem entirely unreasonable. On the other hand, it is also no secret that few (perhaps none) of those using this argument wish to relinquish their own hopes for increasing energy use, including the right to increased emission of greenhouse gases. So, the developing world’s argument is perhaps better described as “it is our turn now.”
Thus is the dilemma for the advanced nations. Any cut they might make, at some expense and possible risk to their economies, might quickly be neutralized (as far as the common good) by increases of emissions by the less-developed nations eager to improve their own economic well-being. Again, a neutral observer might see this as not entirely out of line. Others might point to the fact that the less-developed nations, by and large, have taken a path of extraordinary population growth, which makes it that much more difficult to bring people up to a higher standard of living. In what sense are the industrial nations responsible for the well-being of the rapidly growing number of people elsewhere?
These questions go well beyond science and economics and touch the core of what it means to share a planet as a community. Given the complexity of the problem, a sense of urgency must prevail before a consensus can be found. As it stands, the urgency of the matter is not clear since the extent of the downside to greenhouse gas emissions is uncertain. It is quite probable that problems are created by global warming, but it is impossible to prove in a court of law that man-made emissions caused a given problem, such as a crop failure, a drought, a flood or a hurricane. Thus, the people who sustain most of the damage cannot sue the people who are mostly responsible. Distributed responsibility is not a prod for action.
More importantly, the benefits of energy use accrue right now, while problems generated by such use will occur in the future. Cost in the future is discounted in business by a rate roughly equivalent to the interest received from a deposit. Let's say 20 years down the road the cost of continuing to emit greenhouse gases at the present rate in the present year is 200 billion dollars. At 6 percent discounting, the present cost is only 58 billion dollars (that is, you would have to put this amount in the bank now to get 200 billion back in 20 years). So, the present benefit would have to be less than 58 billion for energy use to be unprofitable, even with the large cost of 200 billion later on.
It is good to appreciate, when observing the discussion among nations, that not all nations are equally at risk from the changes anticipated from global warming. A large country has many options for moving people into more favorable areas if it gets too hot or too dry for comfort in some places, or if sea level rises. Small, less developed, and unluckily-situated nations tend to have greater risks from climate change. In many cases they do not contribute much to the emissions anyway, so their promise to restrain use of energy would have little value in a setting of bargaining about future restraints on emissions.
The rich nations tend to be in favor of the status quo, since that has worked well so far (for them). The poor nations want change and restraint, but without risk to their own aspirations for a better economy. A bargain where “some are supposed to cease to fish so others can fish more” is going to be difficult to strike.