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"Global Warming – what's up?"  and:   "Cities in the Sea."

Global warming – Western guilt?

A contrarian reading

August 2010

International climate negotiations have foundered, in part, on the "underdeveloped" nations' insistence on excess payments from the West for "historical" damage to the atmosphere.  Not so fast, there, my underdeveloped friends.  You seem to be overlooking something.
It will cost serious money to develop new ways to reduce the human population's discharge of "greenhouse gases" that appear to be contributing to the current warming of the global climate. The challenge is to deveop clean energy sources to replace the burning of fossil fuels, while also developing practical techniques for capture and recycling of gas and particulate emissions from current fossil fuel uses. And, in the end, to make these technologies available throughout the world, even to those who can't afford the high prices that the private market would demand. For we all have an equal self-interest in preventing runaway climate change.

Indeed, it was western industrial development – the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath – that apparently began the significant human contribution to the current trends of rising carbon dioxide and global warming, a couple of hundred years ago.  And the countries of the industrialized West (sometimes referred to as "the North," meaning nations – north or south – broadly based on European/American modern technology) have undoubtedly released the bulk of anthropogenic greenhouse gases since then.  And it's reasonable that those who are the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases have the greatest responsibility, and must bear the greatest burden in the reduction of emissions.  We should all agree on that.

But the large group of "underdeveloped" or "less industrialized" countries is not happy with dividing up the responsibility according to current or recent emissions.  They would like the West to acknowledge guilt for two hundred years of irresponsible emissions of greenhouse gases.  In short, they want the West to pay for environmental impacts associated with the development of modern science and technology. But you in your "underdeveloped" country who is raising your voice to condemn the West for the "global warming" phenomenon.  Look around in your own city; what do you see?

You see tall buildings, made with materials and power technology developed slowly in the West over the past couple of hundred years; now eagerly bought by your country without having to invent them or go through the development phase.  The buildings work because of modern steel, concrete, electricity, cabling, elevators, air conditioning and heating, security systems against wind, earthquake, corrosion and lightning, all developed over time in the West, in the process that you condemn as environmentally irresponsible.  The people in the building depend on telephones invented in the West, with transistors, switches, batteries, and displays invented in the West.  They enjoy their radios and TVs, invented in the West, and getting around in their car, or by ship, bus, railroad, or airplane, all developed in the West.  Your roads are covered in Western-developed asphalt, and are built by Western-developed heavy machinery.  Your computer, the internet, email, mobile phones, GPS (and for that matter, the everyday Postal Service), all developed in the West.  Your up-to-date drinking water treatment and distribution system, and the wastewater disposal system, traffic lights, radar that keeps civil aviation safe, the printing press, . . .  Well, I think we get the point.  All the things you covet, the material things you buy or erect as quickly as you can get your hands on them, as well as what you need for safety and organization of a complex society, were developed in the West during the period that you condemn as irresponsibly polluting.

The period of western industrial development was necessary to arrive at our modern conveniences. If it had not happened, the "third world" societies that now happily use these inventions would have had to develop them themselves, with at least the same pollution effects as the Western development during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The real point about the past two centuries is that our understanding of environmental impact developed more slowly – much more slowly – than our industrial production processes. It was not until the 1970s that laws appeared, first in the United States, that seriously limited discharges of pollutants to air and water, and that required analysis of environmental impacts for new projects. (Such laws are still not common or effective in the countries that shout the loudest about Western pollution.) These laws were passed because the West was discovering the effects of pollution first-hand and up close. Rivers that caught fire, air you couldn't see through – it had to get that bad before politicians were willing to interfere with industry and begin to regulate. But understanding that man's activities could impact the Earth's climate was much slower in developing. Not until the 1990s did Western science establish a convincing connection between the observed rise in global temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentration with human-caused discharges of "greenhouse gases" (though this connection had been suspected as early as 1896 by the Swedish chemist/physicist Svante Arrhenius, who first used the term "greenhouse" to refer to the potential atmospheric warming effect of release of industrial gas wastes).

Solving the climate problem will require the cooperation of all nations, but looking to place blame for the industrial development period of the past two hundred years, of which everyone is now reaping the fruits – both the good and the bad – is a non-starter.  There are good reasons why the rich countries ought to pay more than a proportionate share of the cost of solving this world-wide problem – chiefly because they can and it's necessary for success. They need to be motivated to come through. But let's try a motivator other than guilt.  That is neither useful nor merited.

The money to achieve the required world-wide cooperative project exists; it is, in fact, readily available. It only requires that we see the threat from the Earth's climate as more dangerous than the threat from our neighbors. Many of the world's "great" nations can't afford to provide clean water for their citizens, because those same citizens' taxes are earmarked for making bombs and other weapons with which to threaten their neighbors. Their politicians have the sick notion that the more neighbors their country can threaten, the greater is their country. Some day nations will grow past this adolescent stage of picking fights, but we can't wait for that time to deal with the climate crisis. We must act now, by an international cooperative agreement to put the weaponry to rest; to try to lift ourselves past social adolescence toward adulthood, and divert the bulk of military spending to developing solutions to this crisis. If we do this we will benefit in every way: we will advance science, improve the lot of our peoples, provide a more peaceful world, take a big step toward societal maturity, and perhaps even successfully combat the ongoing climate change. Perhaps.

© 2010 H. Paul Lillebo

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