"Colonizing the Atmosphere": How Rich, Western Nations Drive the Climate Crisis

New analysis finds the Global North is responsible for 92% of all excess global carbon dioxide emissions, while the Global South bears the brunt of the devastation.

Sarah Lazare

San Miguel County Firefighters battle a brush fire along Japatul Road during the Valley Fire in Jamul, California on September 6, 2020. SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The cli­mate dis­as­ter fuel­ing unprece­dent­ed fires across the west­ern Unit­ed States, threat­en­ing to swal­low the Mar­shall Islands into the ocean, and unleash­ing peren­ni­al hunger crises on South Sudan is a glob­al cat­a­stro­phe. But the glob­al respon­si­bil­i­ty is not born equal­ly. An analy­sis pub­lished in the Sep­tem­ber issue of The Lancet: Plan­e­tary Health shines new light on the out­sized role of the Unit­ed States, Euro­pean Union and the Glob­al North in cre­at­ing a cli­mate cri­sis that, while felt every­where, is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harm­ing the Glob­al South.

As of 2015, the Unit­ed States bore respon­si­bil­i­ty for 40% of excess glob­al car­bon diox­ide emis­sions,” finds the analy­sis, authored by Jason Hick­el, an eco­nom­ic anthro­pol­o­gist, author and a fel­low of the Roy­al Soci­ety of Arts. The Group of Eight (the Unit­ed States, the Euro­pean Union, Rus­sia, Japan and Cana­da) is respon­si­ble for 85% of such emis­sions. And the Glob­al North (defined as the Unit­ed States, Cana­da, Europe, Israel, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Japan) is respon­si­ble for 92%. 

In con­trast, the Glob­al South — which is by far bear­ing the brunt of cli­mate droughts, floods, famines, storms, sea lev­el rise and deaths — is respon­si­ble for just 8% of excess glob­al car­bon diox­ide emissions.

While oth­er researchers have cal­cu­lat­ed coun­tries’ cur­rent annu­al emis­sions, as well as cumu­la­tive his­toric ones, Hick­el tells In These Times none of this tells us how much nations have con­tributed to emis­sions in excess of the safe lev­el.” His method­ol­o­gy starts from the posi­tion that the atmos­phere is a com­mon resource and that all peo­ple should have equal access to it with­in the safe plan­e­tary bound­ary (defined as 350 parts per mil­lion atmos­pher­ic con­cen­tra­tion of CO2),” he says. 

Hick­el cal­cu­lat­ed the nation­al fair shares of a safe glob­al car­bon bud­get.” Then he sub­tract­ed these fair shares from the his­tor­i­cal emis­sions of coun­tries — ter­ri­to­r­i­al emis­sions from 1850 to 1969, and con­sump­tion-based emis­sions from 1970 to 2015.” This cal­cu­la­tion was then used to deter­mine the extent to which each coun­try has over­shot or under­shot its fair share,” states the analysis.

In oth­er words,” says Hick­el, this method allows us to answer the ques­tion: Who got us into this mess?’”

The analy­sis is meant to not only mea­sure nation­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for glob­al emis­sions, but to iden­ti­fy those coun­tries that are col­o­niz­ing the atmos­phere. The results show that the coun­tries of the Glob­al North have stolen’ a big chunk of the atmos­pher­ic fair-shares of poor­er coun­tries, and on top of that are respon­si­ble for the vast major­i­ty of excess emis­sions,” Hick­el explains. In oth­er words,” he adds, they have effec­tive­ly col­o­nized the glob­al atmos­pher­ic com­mons for the sake of their own indus­tri­al growth, and for the sake of main­tain­ing their own high lev­els of ener­gy consumption.”

The study finds that, in con­trast to Glob­al North coun­tries, most coun­tries in the Glob­al South were with­in their bound­ary fair shares, includ­ing India and Chi­na.” This is despite the fact that Chi­na, with more than four times the pop­u­la­tion of the Unit­ed States, is present­ly the top over­all emit­ter of green­house gas­es, although the Unit­ed States is the top emit­ter per capi­ta. Accord­ing to the analy­sis, When it comes to cli­mate change, how­ev­er, what mat­ters is stocks of car­bon diox­ide in the atmos­phere, not annu­al flows; so respon­si­bil­i­ty must be mea­sured in terms of each coun­try’s con­tri­bu­tion to cumu­la­tive his­tor­i­cal emis­sions.” Yet, the study notes, giv­en that Chi­na’s annu­al emis­sions are rough­ly 9 bil­lion tonnes per year, it will soon over­shoot its fair share.”

The fact that the Unit­ed States and Glob­al North bear dis­pro­por­tion­ate respon­si­bil­i­ty for dri­ving the cli­mate cri­sis does not let Chi­na off the hook for cut­ting emis­sions, says Hick­el. If Chi­na does not reduce emis­sions, and fast, then we are all doomed,” he under­scores. And indeed, cli­mate activists have argued that in order to curb the cli­mate cri­sis, the Unit­ed States and Chi­na must over­come their con­fronta­tion­al foot­ing and coop­er­ate to dra­mat­i­cal­ly cut emissions.

How­ev­er, Hick­el makes the moral argu­ment that clear­ly the coun­tries that have con­tributed the most to excess emis­sions must cut emis­sions fastest, with the Unit­ed States and Europe lead­ing the way. They have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to get to zero as soon as is phys­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble — in a mat­ter of years, not decades. This can be fea­si­bly achieved, and we should all demand it.”

Oth­er stud­ies and analy­ses have point­ed to the dis­pro­por­tion­ate respon­si­bil­i­ty of the Glob­al North, and wealthy coun­tries, for dri­ving the cli­mate cri­sis. A study released by Oxfam Inter­na­tion­al in 2015 found that the poor­est half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion — rough­ly 3.5 bil­lion peo­ple — are to blame for just 10% of total glob­al emis­sions attrib­uted to indi­vid­ual con­sump­tion,” yet they live over­whelm­ing­ly in the coun­tries most vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change.” In con­trast, the rich­est 10% of peo­ple in the world are respon­si­ble for rough­ly 50% of glob­al emissions.

A 2015 paper pub­lished in Sci­en­tif­ic Reports iden­ti­fies free rid­er” and forced rid­er” coun­tries. It explains, “‘Free rid­er’ coun­tries con­tribute dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly to glob­al [green­house gas] emis­sions with only lim­it­ed vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the effects of the result­ing cli­mate change, while ​’forced rid­er’ coun­tries are most vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change but have con­tributed lit­tle to its genesis.”

Yet, even as acute effects of the cli­mate cri­sis are being felt in the Unit­ed States, the Repub­li­can Par­ty con­tin­ues to embrace cli­mate denial, and the lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty shows reluc­tance to curb the fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion dri­ving the cri­sis — and hos­til­i­ty to rad­i­cal solu­tions like the Green New Deal. The Unit­ed States has con­tributed only $1 bil­lion to the UN’s Green Cli­mate Fund, meant to help devel­op­ing coun­tries reduce their green­house gas emis­sions and enhance their abil­i­ty to respond to cli­mate change” (for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma pledged $3 bil­lion, but Pres­i­dent Trump lat­er reneged on $2 bil­lion of it).

What­ev­er hor­rif­ic price U.S. res­i­dents in the direct path of harm­ful fires are forced to pay for politi­cians’ inac­tion, the costs to the Glob­al South will be greater in scale. We know that the Glob­al South suf­fers more than 90% of the costs of cli­mate break­down, and 98% of the deaths asso­ci­at­ed with cli­mate break­down, due to fires, floods, droughts, famine, dis­ease, dis­place­ment and so on,” says Hick­el. So, just like under colo­nial­ism, the North is ben­e­fit­ting at the expense of the South.”



Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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