Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Whose Atmosphere Is It Anyway?

That's the question, the issue, the argument that's going to bedevil and quite likely scuttle any meaningful pact to fight global warming.

Whose atmosphere is it anyway? Well, if you look at those nations that have been dumping massive greenhouse gas emissions there for the past two centuries, you might think that the earth's atmosphere is the preserve of the industrialized and industrializing nations. First and foremost, think Europe and North America. Then add in countries like India, China, Russia and Brazil now vying for their dumping place at our atmospheric Love Canal.

Why is this question so important? Because the way it's answered will largely decide whether we have any hope of reaching the consensus without which we have no hope of preventing catastrophic climate change.

We used to talk about cutting greenhouse gas emissions by this percentage or that based on this year's or that year's threshold through emission reductions and carbon-trading. Nonsense, all of it utter nonsense. It's nonsense because it has endless wiggle room. The fine print alone renders it dysfunctional.

But there is another approach. Science has quantified both the amount of carbon dioxide emissions currently in the atmosphere and the amount of additional emissions the atmosphere can hold before we reach the 2 degree Celsius global heating point that's expected to trigger catastrophic climate change.

So, if we have an accurate idea of how many more billions of tonnes of CO2 emissions can be dumped into the atmosphere - for centuries, possibly millenia - the question becomes just who gets how much of that limited quota? This is where it gets tricky. You see there are some, an awful lot of "somes" in fact, who think that we in the West have already had our fair share of the atmosphere's carbon carrying capacity. It's hard to argue with that but their next argument is a real bitch.

What they're saying is that, "We'll spot you all the carbon emissions you've dumped into the atmosphere over the past two centuries in making yourself so fat and sassy but, from here on in, we should all share the remaining capacity equally." Gee, doesn't that sound fair and equitable? We treat the atmosphere as though it belongs to everyone and to no one so that we share it equally. Count the legs and divide by two sort of thing.

What's the alternative? Who has the right to say, "I claim that atmosphere as my own carbon emissions dumping ground because my economy relies on that so you can't have it"? Can you imagine? Going around to the people of sub-Saharan Africa or Central and South America and telling them we have priority rights to their atmosphere and we can use it to visit upon them the very worst scourges of global warming? Maybe we can torture logic enough to come up with a basis for atmospheric lebensraum.

To accept that the atmosphere belongs to everyone equally is to pass capital judgment on our carbon-based economy. It is to virtually outlaw fossil-fuels and commit us all to alternative-fuel rehab. There is no other way. If you can't understand that, read this.

But you say, won't that hurt the Canadian economy? Won't that affect our standard of living? Perhaps but even so the arguments are compelling. Do you think the climate change we've already triggered isn't already having a crushing impact on the economy and the standard of living of others, typically the least fortunate in the most vulnerable corners of the world? Isn't it grand that we can protest so vehemently about tweaks to our standard of living when others don't have the luxury of fretting about 'standards' because they're fully engaged with the struggle of merely living at all? It would be one thing if they caused their misfortune but they didn't, we did.

No comments: