Environmental Equity

by Anil Antony | 6/29/01 5:00am

The word "equity" connotes a balance, fairness and concepts of justice. We in the United States have long considered ourselves a just, equal and fair society. Internationally, however, this is not true. The political realitiy is we are an environmental bully. The U.S. government has repeatedly stymied attempts to forge a binding global agreement on global warming. The most recent attempt is the Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration has declared "dead" and "unfair" to U.S. interests. Before passing judgement that the Kyoto Protocol is unfair to the U.S., I suggest an in depth examination of environmental equity. President Bush is correct: Kyoto is an imperfect document, but it is the best one we have.

(Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series by Anil Antony presenting his views on environmental equity.)

There is no doubt that human populations are responsible for carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide [among other chemicals] accumulating in the atmosphere. These, in turn, have contributed to an increase in mean global temperatures. New studies produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- the preeminent group in the field of climate change -- prove the correlation between anthropogenic emissions and temperature anomalies. The latest IPCC findings have produced new reasons to be concerned about the Earth's future. Studies show that vulnerable areas, such as those in Africa, will be more susceptible to drought in the future. We are also seeing an increase in extreme weather events on the U.S. and an increase in the frequency, magnitude and persistence of El Nino events.

The most conservative estimates predict a global temperature increase of over one degree Celsius. The frightening truth is that even that could be catastrophic.

The IPCC concluded with considerable certainty that higher maximum temperatures, higher minimum temperatures and more intense precipitation events are very likely. An increased risk of summer drying, an increase in tropical cyclone peak and mean intensities, disease spread, and intensified floods and droughts are all also likely.

It should be noted that the IPCC is not a group of hacks, but a group of over 2,500 climatologists and other scientists from around the world, and their findings receive almost universal support and acceptance. IPCC Chair and World Bank chief scientist Dr. Bob Watson recently pointed out that 17 National Academies of Science, in addition to the U.S. NAS, have issued support for the IPCC findings. Dr. Watson said, "So, currently the only person who doesn't believe the science is President George W. Bush" (for which he received loud applause from the notably international community).

Mitigation responsibility is a numbers game. Currently, there are 3 billion people who live on an income of less than $2 a day and 1.3 billion who survive on less than $1 per day. The 800 million people who are currently malnourished represent a number almost three times the population of the entire U.S. In addition, 1.3 billion are without clean water and 2 billion individuals live without sanitation and electricity. To suggest that these people are responsible for the current crisis is ridiculous, if not morally reprehensible.

This begs the question " historically, who is responsible? The answer is clear. The OECD nations are responsible for 80 percent of all the greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere. Moreover, the U.S. produces more than 35 percent of the world's emissions of greenhouse gases despite only having 5 percent of its population. One reason for this staggering figure is that we drive 40 percent of the world's automobiles, with the majority being larger and less fuel efficient than those in other nations.

The ultimate measure of equity is per capita energy use. According to International Energy Agency 1998 statistics on electric energy consumption, in kWh per capita, the world average is 2252 and the OECD average is 7751. China and India, the two nations President Bush complained were not covered under the Kyoto Protocol use a slight 872 and 416, respectively. In contrast U.S. uses an enormous 13,388. Tell me, why should China and India be subject to binding targets when they've barely contributed to the current crisis and their combined per capita electric energy use is less than one-tenth of the U.S.?

Even if you sum the net total emissions for China and India which, combined, have 6 times as many people, it doesn't amount to half of the U.S. emissions. And these countries are more committed to halting global warming than we are, so what gives us the right to cast stones?