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Will the Polluters Pay for Climate Change?

By Peter Singer (August 06, 2006)

I am writing this in New York in early August, when the mayor declared a "heat emergency" to prevent widespread electricity outages from the expected high use of air conditioners. City employees could face criminal charges if they set their thermostats below 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.5 Celsius). Nevertheless, electricity usage has reached near-record levels.

Meanwhile California has emerged from its own record-breaking heat wave. For the United States as a whole, the first six months of 2006 were the hottest in more than a century. Europe is experiencing an unusually hot summer, too. July set new records in England and the Netherlands, where weather data go back more than 300 years.

The hot northern summer fits well with the release of An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film featuring former US Vice-President Al Gore. Using some remarkable graphs, images, and other information, the film makes a compelling case that our carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming, or, at the very least, contributing to it, and that we must urgently address the issue.

Americans tend to talk a lot about morality and justice. But most Americans still fail to realize that their country's refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol, and their subsequent business-as-usual approach to greenhouse gas emissions, is a moral failing of the most serious kind. It is already having harmful consequences for others, and the greatest inequity is that it is the rich who are using most of the energy that leads to the emissions that cause climate change, while it is the poor who will bear most of the costs. (To see what you can do to reduce your own contribution, go to

To see the inequity, I merely have to glance up at the air conditioner that is keeping my office bearable. While I've done more than the mayor requested, setting it at 82F (27C), I'm still part of a feedback loop. I deal with the heat by using more energy, which leads to burning more fossil fuel, putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heating up the planet more. It even happened when I watched An Inconvenient Truth: on a warm evening, the cinema was so chilly that I wished I had brought a jacket.

Heat kills. A heat wave in France in 2003 caused an estimated 35,000 deaths, and a hot spell similar to the one Britain had last month caused more than 2,000 deaths, according to official estimates. Although no particular heat wave can be directly attributed to global warming, it will make such events more frequent. Moreover, if global warming continues unchecked, the number of deaths that occur when rainfall becomes more erratic, causing both prolonged droughts and severe floods, will dwarf the death toll from hot weather in Europe.. More frequent intense hurricanes will kill many more. Melting polar ice will cause rising seas to inundate low-lying fertile delta regions on which hundreds of millions of people grow their food. Tropical diseases will spread, killing still more people.

Overwhelmingly, the dead will be those who lack the resources to adapt, to find alternative sources of food, and who do not have access to health care. Even in rich countries, it usually isn't the rich who die in natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, those who died were the poor in low-lying areas who lacked cars to escape. If this is true in a country like the US, with a reasonably efficient infrastructure and the resources to help its citizens in times of crisis, it is even more evident when disasters strike developing countries, because their governments lack the resources needed, and because, when it comes to foreign assistance, rich nations still do not count all human lives equally.

According to United Nations figures, in 2002 per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in the US were 16 times higher than in India, 60 times higher than in Bangladesh, and more than 200 times higher than in Ethiopia, Mali, or Chad. Other developed nations with emissions close to those of the US include Australia, Canada, and Luxembourg. Russia, Germany, Britain, Italy, France, and Spain all have levels between a half and a quarter that of the US. This is still significantly above the world average, and more than 50 times that of the poorest nations in which people will die from global warming.

If a polluter harms others, those who are harmed normally have a legal remedy. For example, if a factory leaks toxic chemicals into a river that I use to irrigate my farm, killing my crops, I can sue the factory owner. If the rich nations pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, causing my crops to fail because of changing rainfall patterns, or my fields are inundated by a rise in the sea level, shouldn't I also be able to sue?

Camilla Toulmin, who directs the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based NGO, was present at a lecture on climate change that Al Gore gave in June. She asked him what he thought about compensation for those who are hit hardest by climate change, but who have done the least to cause it. The question, she reports on, seemed to take him by surprise, and he did not support the idea. Like Toulmin, I wonder if this is a truth that is just too inconvenient, even for him.


Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and the author, with Jim Mason, of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.