Kai Wright: World leaders have just finished the meeting in which they tried to agree on a plan for saving the planet, but to a lot of people outside the conference, much of what happened inside missed the point.
Vanessa Nakate: I live in Kampala Uganda, a country that has one of the fastest changing climates in the world. In the past few years, I have seen more and more how the climate crisis is affecting the African continent, which is ironic given that Africa is the lowest emitter of CO2 emissions of all continents, except for Antarctica.
Kai: That's one of many ironies each of which beg hard the question, who's going to pay for the damage already done and why are we on the 26th global meeting AND still waiting for action? We'll tackle these questions and take your calls on The United States of Anxiety.
Regina de Heer: How much or how little do you think about climate change on an everyday basis?
Anonymous 1: I think about it every day, multiple times a day.
Anonymous 2: I'm the same way, I think it needs to be the number one issue that our policymakers are acting on.
Regina de Heer: How has climate change affected your day to day life or the way you go about living your life?
Anonymous 2: I have always tried to be environmentally conscious, but it is an everyday issue.
Anonymous 1: A lot of my friends, their apartments flooded this year, but my friends and I talk about the politics of having a family. We're seeing a lot of timestamps with like 2030, 2040, 2050. The idea of bringing another human to [laughs] the world is hard to think about.
Anonymous 2: It's hard because we deserve to have the families that we want. It's actually not on a pregnant mom, it's really on the corporations.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. A lot of us are probably just starting to think and talk about climate change in the first person as something directly impacting our own lives and our own futures, and then we're going to have to solve together. We want to facilitate that thinking on this show in an ongoing way. As we return to it tonight, we hope to hear lots from you. How are we going to fix this together? The global summit that has just concluded in Glasgow Scotland was by most accounts, at least, yet another missed opportunity to face reality.
A few weeks before the conference, we talked to journalists and activists Bill McKibben here on the show. The take away of that conversation was that there's no individualized non-political solution. Bill said we got to work together to force governments and large institutions to act, because only they have the ability to lower emissions fast enough, dramatically enough, to avoid the disaster scenarios that are otherwise coming and in some places that are already here.
If that didn't just now happen in Glasgow, what now? We'll explore this question with two journalists who had been reporting on climate change for some years. The second half of the hour, we'll talk about reparations in particular, what is owed to the people and the places that are already facing the consequences of climate change, but first an overview of the summit and the important history that led up to it from Elizabeth Kolbert.
She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer prize winning book, The Sixth Extinction, her most recent book published earlier this year is called Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. I'm thrilled Elizabeth, that you could join us tonight.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Oh, well, thanks for having me.
Kai: Listeners, if you've got a question for Elizabeth, call us up 646-435-7280. I also offer the same invitation we made on our last climate show. I want to know if climate change has already forced you to do anything different in your own life. Tell me about it and why. Elizabeth, as I said, prior to the summit, we had this conversation with your colleague Bill McKibben.
We were responding to the UN that had released a report saying we had give or take a decade to dramatically reduce emissions, enough to avoid the worst case scenarios that scientists expect. My basic question here is, did anything happen at this summit that meaningfully moved us closer to meeting that challenge?
Elizabeth: Well, that's a good question. I want to start out by saying I was not actually at the COP. I have never been at a COP. They are journalistically wastelands in a certain sense. [laughs] They take a lot of carbon. They've been criticized. In fact there's a lot of carbon from everyone flying around the world. I did not attend this COP and I am reading the coverage just like everyone else's.
I think that what the COP-- one of the big, I think there was a sense in this COP from the outside at least that people understand finally it's only taken 26 of them that this is an urgent situation. There were many comments made, for example, that Boris Johnson the prime minister of the UK, no climate champion really during his career came out and said basically it's one minute to midnight.
David Wallace-Wells, who's going to be on the program later wrote a very smart piece about everyone, now at least, rising to the rhetorical challenge, we've really got to do something. The question of what concrete came out of the COP is a pretty hard one to answer. That goes back to the strange way in which we are conducting climate negotiations now, where countries come with these voluntary, they're called nationally determined contributions.
You can say anything. You can commit to anything and you could argue why doesn't everyone just come in and say anything, because there's no enforcement mechanisms. Even the commitments that were made, and there were some commitments made including by the US at this COP that did potentially move the needle, if you're actually looking at temperatures in 2100, but the question of whether they will be fulfilled is completely unclear.
Kai: You wrote about this as it was unfolding and the backstory to this, like all of the history of these 26 meetings that set up that situation. I want to talk through a little bit of that history. First of COP for those who aren't following, that's conference of parties. That's the nations who have agreed to a treaty to reduce our emissions. I like how you put it in your article. You wrote that, "COP26 is a sequel to COP21 which is an attempt to recover from the mess of COP15."
You say, we've got to go all the way back to the conference that proceeded all of these "bad COPs," and that was the 1992 so-called earth summit. Take us back there. This was in Rio 1992. Why is it important to understand what happened there for understanding our climate conversations now?
Elizabeth: Yes. That was a big moment. It was called the earth summit, and it itself was the 20th anniversary of a big summit that had been held in 1972 in Stockholm. What happened at the earth summit was, climate change was in the scientific community already alarm bells going off. One of the important things to understand about climate change and why it's somewhat different from some other pollution problems is, it's a cumulative problem.
Whatever you put up there stays up there for a very long time. Also, there's a time lag in the system. Scientists were saying, you may not be seeing climate change now, but if you continue down this path disastrous things are going to happen. That had gotten the attention of "world leaders." A document called the UN United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was drawn up and it committed signatories to avoiding what's a terrible mouthful, dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
That is the goal. It left undefined what that was, what was dangerous, and it left undefined how we were going to do it. At the insistence of the US, this was under George H.W Bush, there were no timetables, there were no targets in this. It was a very vague document. We've been dealing with the consequences of that ever since. One of the good consequences is it sailed through the Senate. It passed the Senate unanimously. They approved the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
There was a time when this was "uncontroversial" but we've been struggling ever since to figure out what to do. One thing I should say, we could go even further back if you really want to set the stage for this, to what was called the Montreal protocol which phased out ozone destroying chemicals. That was back in the 80s, in 1987. That was a UN agreement to phase out these chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer, and the ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet radiation. That was a big deal. A lot of people thought, well, if we raise the alarm about climate change, the same thing will happen. We will phase out fossil fuels. There was a lot of optimism about that that has since long been lost. Let's put it that way.
Kai: I think a lot about the what-if of even that 1982 meeting where, what if, in fact, we had begun the act at that moment? As I understand it, so much of the damage that has been done has actually happened since then.
Elizabeth: Yes, roughly half of all carbon emissions have been emitted since everyone signed, virtually every country on the planet has signed. New countries have come into being and they've all signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Meanwhile, half of all carbon emissions in history have been emitted since then. It's hard to look at that record and say that that document has made much difference.
Kai: I'm talking with Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert about the just concluded COP26 and we will take your calls right after the break.
Kousha: Hey, everyone, this is Kousha, I'm a producer. The last time we covered climate change, you sent us a lot of responses about strategies to solve the issue. Thanks for sending those, every one at the show loved hearing your thoughts. Now we're discussing climate change again, and we want to hear your responses, but to a slightly different question. What changes have you personally had to make in your life because of climate change? Or what changes do you think you'll have to make in your life because of climate change?
Maybe you've had to start buying N95 masks or change what you eat, or you think you'll end up moving your home because of environmental disaster. How is this affecting you personally, that's what we want to know. If any of this resonates with you record your voice on your phone and email it to us, the address is email@example.com. All right, thanks.
Kai: Welcome back, I'm kai Wright, and I am joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. She wrote for The New Yorker about the sad history of lackluster global summits on climate action and such as the one that has just completed seems to be repeating history. We're taking your calls, if you've got a question about the summit, or about where we go from now. Let's go to Harry in Forest Hills. Harry, welcome to the show.
Harry Hills: Hi, good evening. I just want to quickly mention three book titles in 1972. Limits to Growth, followed by Reorganizing International Order, and the third book, Mankind at the Turning Point, I read those books 50 to 55 years ago, then the earth's population was 4 billion, it is now rapidly approaching 8 billion, and each billion gets added in less time. Why is population being ignored as a factor?
Kai: Okay, thank you for that, Harry. Elizabeth, what about that, one, is population being ignored as a factor? If so, why do you think that is?
Elizabeth: Well, I don't necessarily think population is being ignored as a factor, I think that this situation that we're in right now, and it's certainly true, that population is rapidly approaching 8 billion, is that in many parts of the world, population growth rates are down. They're way down there, even in some parts, some places like Japan, they're below replacement levels. Those places where population growth is low, tend to be very high consuming countries, like our own and like Northern Europe.
Then you have parts of the world where population is still growing and, and even in some places that are still growing fairly rapidly and those tend to be very low consuming nations. Even in places where you're getting a lot of population growth, people are not contributing, nearly as much, consuming a tiny fraction of what those of us in parts of the world with low population are to this problem. This is a problem that is the number of people consuming times the amount you're consuming.
The real consuming and the real burning of fossil fuels is going on in parts of the globe, where population growth is already pretty low. That is one of the reasons. Another reason is, we have to try to solve this problem with the population that we have. We have to address it now. There is a big, even as population growth rates slow, is demographic momentum. Parts of the world where they have young populations where their populations will grow, because a lot of people are just reaching the age where they're going to have kids.
We know there's a certain amount of momentum in global population, and we have to deal with that. We have to try to deal with this problem knowing that.
Kai: It's an interesting reframing that it's people times your your emissions, not people, period.
Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.
Kai: Let's go to Suzanne in Hillsborough. Suzanne, welcome to the show.
Suzanne: Oh, thank you. Well, I have a quarter mile long stone driveway and it washed out with the so-called remnants of Hurricane Ida, so that was undriveable. In terms of repairing it, I realized that I had to think not in terms of restoring it, because storms are going to be worse and more frequent. It was built a new with big new pipes going under the driveway, and ditches installed to get the water under the pipe. Because it's half a minute to midnight and I'm encouraged, people are talking about climate change more.
Today, a small group of us were meeting indoors, and we had the doors open because of COVID. One person said, "Oh, well, I'm concerned about climate change. Do you mind if I close this door?" [chuckles] We said, "Sure, sure." That's my comment.
Kai: Thank you for that, Suzanne. It makes me think, Elizabeth, just about this question of how we adapt, that is ongoing at the global level as well but I imagine that that adaptations Suzanne just described wasn't cheap, when she rebuilt her driveway. That's where we always run up against is the cost of doing it. How much of the conference that you heard was about these kinds of adaptations and paying for them?
Elizabeth: Well, a lot of the sticking point of the conference was this question, there were supposed to be this thing called the Green Climate Fund. It was supposed to be a significant amount of money, I think $100 billion a year moving from those countries that are responsible, dominantly responsible for the problem, which include our own certainly, to those countries that contributed very little, and to help them with both a transition to clean energy, don't do what we did. Don't develop the way we did, develop along a different path.
Also with adaptation and there was a lot of wrangling, as I understand it, about how much of that should go toward development of clean energy sources, and how much go toward adaptation, because already in New York and around the world, things are having to be very dramatically rethought and rebuilt. Then there's another issue that was also very contentious, I don't think really got anywhere, although some people I think, would say, well, at least it's now on the table in a way that it wasn't before, which is an issue that in sort of COP speak, is called loss and damages.
That is just payments for what you might consider to be like, for pain and suffering, in a judgment or whatever, we mess things up, you're suffering the damage and so we owe you money for that. That's been hugely contentious for many years now. Developed countries are, including our own, once again, are very reluctant to agree to that in the sense that it opens up humongous liability and potentially rightly so. I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, but that is the issue.
Kai: We're going to talk about that particular question at some length in the next half of the show. If you're listening, and you're interested in hearing more about that stick around. That's going to be the second half of our conversation tonight. Let's go to Louise in Larchmont in Westchester.
Louise: Yes, it's Louise, thank you for taking my call. What places are effectively doing things to reduce carbon emissions?
Kai: As in cities, counties, states, are there other particular localities, Elizabeth that come to mind?
Elizabeth: Yes. Well, there are whole countries that have done a significant amount. I think, people would point to the Danes to a certain extent, the Germans, places where there are days or hours at least, or maybe even holidays where the country of Denmark is powered off of wind energy. That was a pretty concerted effort. Denmark is obviously a pretty small country.Parts of the US that have done a lot, there's been a lot of focus I know, because I wrote about it in Burlington, Vermont, for example, which has a municipal utility.
I think there's a big push being made in Ithaca, New York to electrify everything. They also have a municipal utility. Places with the municipal utilities have a bit of a leg up in this because they can make decisions about their energy sources at a municipal level.
Kai: I know that you're relatively tight on time here in terms of, we got to let you go. We have a ton of questions, and I'm going to try to clump a couple of them for you.
Kai: I'm going to ask on your behalf. There's some questions about methane and the connection between methane and emissions. I know that one of the big things that did seem to come out of the conference was that more than 100 countries, including the US, pledged to cut their emissions of methane. Was that a meaningful advancement, for instance?
Elizabeth: Yes, once again, if they actually do it, it is meaningful. Methane is essentially the main component of natural gas. It's also what comes out of things that rot when they're rotting under anaerobic conditions. It's what comes out of a landfill. All methane emissions should be captured from landfills and then they get burned as natural gas. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane eventually oxidizes into carbon dioxide but in the first years that it's up there, it's a very powerful greenhouse gas.
There's a lot of concern that fracking for natural gas is causing a spike in methane. Methane emissions are way up. There's debate over why, and I won't get into that right now but yes, if countries actually follow through on this, it would be significant. Once again, it wouldn't get at the heart of the matter, which is that we're burning fossil fuels but it would be significant.
Kai: Another caller and I'll ask on his behalf, is asking the basic question, I think I have to is, so what am I supposed to do with all of this? As I said, we had your colleague Bill McKibben on, he said, "We've got act collectively to move the politics." That isn't thus far working it seems. What is your advice? I guess, how do you process it? As somebody who has been thinking about this for a very long time, we're at this critical juncture, how do you process acting as an individual on it?
Elizabeth: Of course, Bill is absolutely right. We're not solving this by everybody voluntarily biking to work. Although I think biking to work is a great idea. I do think there is a role for people modeling good behavior. That being said, I completely agree with you though we have no choice but to work for political change, as difficult as that is and only getting more difficult.
Kai: Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author most recently of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Thanks so much for joining us.
Elizabeth: Oh, thanks for having me.
Kai: For more history of that 1992 Global Summit on Climate Change, and actually, how the climate denial movement grew up in response to it here in the US, we'll put a link to that in the show notes for this episode. Sorry, to all of you I didn't get to, there was so many callers with questions. Send them on, send them to me as a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will gather them up and we will have an opportunity to answer them I promise. Coming up, we got rich off of destroying the climate, so what do we owe everybody who's already living with that destruction? That's next.
Vanessa: It's time for our leaders to wake up. It's time for our leaders to stop talking and start acting. It's time to count the real costs and it's time for the polluters to pay. It's time to keep the promises. No more empty promises. No more empty summits. No more empty conferences. It's time to show us the money. It's time. It's time. It's time and don't forget to listen to the most affected people and areas. Thank you.
Kai: That was 24 year old Vanessa Nakate addressing a gathering in Milan last month just before the World Summit began. She is a Ugandan activist who has been a stirring voice demanding that wealthy industrialized nations pay for the damage they have done to the world, damage that is already causing acute harm in many parts of the world.
Climate journalist David Wallace-Wells wrote about Nakate and others, who are leading a global discussion on reparations in New York Magazine. His article tries to quantify what we owe, and what that money might pay for in terms of fixing the problem. David, welcome to the show.
David Wallace-Wells: Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.
Kai: David, let's start with Vanessa's speech there, you make a provocative point about her in your article. You say she's been often compared to the Swedish youth activist, Greta Thunberg, but that actually, Nakate has a much more challenging message for people in places like the US and Europe and as a consequence, we know much less about her. Explain that.
David: Yes, I think Greta, is in a lot of ways understood by Westerners as an almost cuddly figure. She is understood to be sweet, but her language is pretty hostile in its own. The message is, ultimately, look at your own hypocrisy. Look at how little you're responding to the science, look how little you're doing to take control of this climate crisis. It's a message of self-reflection.
Vanessa's rhetoric is much more confrontational in the sense that she is documenting in her speeches and in her new book, the impact that the warming that has been created by the rich countries of the world, in the recent past, is already having on countries like hers, and indeed, on countries that are even poorer than hers. Is saying, this cause and effect is not mysterious, it is very clear, it is very direct.
We have a climate crisis because of the fossil fuel production and carbonized development that has taken place in the Global North, and it is brutally impacting the Global South. If you want to believe that you're immoral responsible actor in the world, you can't pretend that those two facts are separate, or that something about how you as an individual or your nation has behaved in the Global North means that you are somehow now responsible for the damage that we're feeling in the Global South.
I think there are a lot of reasons why she has been marginalized compared to Greta, but I think one of them is that that language is much harder for people like you and me to take.
Kai: Yes, maybe related to it, you also point out that she came to global attention, at least after she was cropped out of a wire photo of young activist all the rest of which were white. That feels too depressingly perfect to be irrelevant to this conversation.
David: Yes, it's a little on the nose. I'm glad to say that in this new cycle around COP26, she's been considerably more prominent. I think that's really important because the message of the plight of the Global South and the responsibility that the Global North has for that plate, it's growing but it's still not nearly as essential to the way that people in the US and across Europe think about the climate crisis as it really should be.
Kai: You point to some remarkable stats in your article that I honestly just hadn't really appreciated. You write that Nakate, for instance, who was born in 1996 and about half of all emissions ever produced in the history of humankind were put into the climate since her birth, and further that Sub Saharan Africa is accountable for just 3% of those emissions.
There are several things packed into those numbers I want to talk about but first, the half of the problem that has occurred since 1996 after the alarm bells first rang in that first global summit that Elizabeth Kolbert and I were talking about. This isn't a 1950s problem. We did this in our time, after already having been told the consequences and that's really sobering to me. Can you just unpack that and explain that for people who may be hearing that idea for the first time?
David: Yes, I think we often conceptualize climate change as a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, which means that we think of it as something that started in 1750 or 1850. First of all, the industrialization of the world as a whole really didn't begin until the middle of the 20th century. Up until 1850, the lion's share of all global carbon emissions were produced by the UK. Even thinking about the problem, the math from a perspective of the present, basically, all of it has been done since World War II. I think the figure is something like 90% of all Carbon emissions ever produced in the history of humanity have come since World War II. That means a lot of things. It means that the crisis is a relatively recent creation and it means that many of the people who are most responsible, both at the individual level, at the corporate level under the national level, are alive today and often in power. Fully, a quarter of the damage as, you mentioned a half since the early nineties, that's startling itself.
A quarter of the damage that's been done to the climate has been done since 2008, since Joe Biden was elected vice president. We're really still doing this damage very much in real time. It's not just that we're not doing enough to clean up the mess that was left behind by our grandparents. We are creating the mess. We're creating a much bigger mess than our grandparents, and we're still not doing nearly enough about it.
It's important to keep in mind and thinking about all that, that because carbon hangs in the atmosphere for centuries and maybe even longer, that carbon, the carbon that was produced in the US in 1995, or was produced in China in 2003, that carbon's not gone. It's still warming the planet. It is the reason that we have a climate crisis today. Unless we take it out of the air, it's the reason we're going to still have the climate crisis for centuries to come.
We often think about carbon emissions in terms of future emissions, trajectories, how can we get China and India and Sub-Saharan Africa on a cleanup path? Those things are really important, but we're at the point we are today where we're talking about a make or break climate conference, we're at that point because of emissions that we've already produced in the past. Some people call them historical emissions, some call them legacy emissions.
They're not going to go away unless we do something about them, which means that it is still American responsibility, with the responsibility of the global north that it's our fault that we're in the bind that we're in today.
Kai: Well, in that, our fault part, and we are going to talk some about how you do this math and what could come from it. Just to dwell on this, another stat you give in that regard is, that one transatlantic airline ticket yields more emissions than the average person living in Sub-Saharan Africa generates in an entire year. It made me wrestle with how we think about the balance between individual level accountability and responsibility and response, versus the fossil fuel companies level of responsibility and response, and just how we as individuals then enter into this conversation.
David: I think in the country, like the US it's easy to think that there are basically two teams, there's a team science climate, which is basically progressive or liberal, and there's a team denier conservative that's like a fossil fuel business, that's on the other side. Those fights are real. Those disputes are real. Even down to the level of individual behavior, there are certain groups of people that are behaving much more responsibly when it comes to climate change and others who were behaving much less responsibly.
When you pull out and think about it in the global context, it's really just about what country you're from and how rich you are. The huge gap is between the countries of the global north and the touches of the global south, not between Liberals and Republicans, not between environmentally conscious people and environmentally fatalistic people. These gaps are just so enormous.
The average American emit something like 20 times the the average Kenyan or Ugandan, and maybe more than 100 times what the average person in say Mali or some of the most poor countries in the world emits. From the perspective of the global south, like whether you supported renewed deal whether you voted for Joe Biden, those are relatively trivial aspects of your carbon profile. From the perspective of the global south just about everybody who's not very poor in a place like the US or Western Europe, is just doing an enormous amount of damage.
We think, oh, we can behave a little more responsibility. We can eat a little less meat. We can buy an electric car. Those things do help, but they help off of a baseline of a very, very brutal baseline in which basically every American is just doing quite a lot of damage to the stability wellbeing, livelihood and potential for future human flourishing in the developing world.
Kai: Along these lines, but challenging them a bit is, there's somebody on Twitter that says that given the fact that big oils delegation at COP26 was larger than that of any country, shouldn't COP be changed to the conference of petroleum, or conference of polluters, to better reflect reality. At the same time that we are all individuals, there are these big structural things that showed up even at this very conference.
David: Oh, absolutely. I don't want to minimize the ability of the fossil fuel companies or the moral cowardice that's been shown by not just American political leaders, but political leaders all around the world of the last generation, who knowing everything that fossil fuel use was doing to the planet, nevertheless sort of continued on in a business as usual way. I think there's a real differentials. I don't mean to suggest the average American is as guilty as Rex Tillerson or whatever.
I just think is important to understand that we are all also operating still in, within those systems which have been designed to benefit us and are built on the back of fossil fuel use. It is now the case that you can look around the world and see paths of possible greener prosperity. That is the wonderful promise of renewable energy, which is now cheaper in 90% of the world than dirty energy is, but through all of human history wealth has been created basically by the use of fossil fuels.
Countries and people are rich because of the use of fossil fuels, which means because they are polluting or even poisoning the planet. We have a culture now where especially in the US, we tend to regard wealth as clean. All these beautiful people with their clean skin and their fit bodies and healthy diets. The truth is, from a climate perspective it's really the opposite, wealth is extremely dirty. Poverty, as much as people in the US regard it as dirty, is from a climate perspective, really quite clean.
We are living high off the hog here in the US and across Europe by basically imposing pollution on parts of the world that can't deal with it. Now we're going to deal with it too, but it's the equatorial band of the planet, the developing countries of the world who are expecting the most intense impacts, or already experiencing the most intense impacts. Of course, both have the least resources to deal with those impacts and also did the least to cause the problem in the first place.
Kai: Vanessa Nakate's speech in Milan was meant to refocus the conversation at meetings like COP26 on exactly this. She and others say, we can't only talk at this point about how to reduce emissions and adapt to the damage done. We need to have another conversation altogether. Let me play another piece of her speech on this idea.
Vanessa: There's one thing I almost never hear leaders talk about and that is loss and damage. For many of us, reducing and avoiding is no longer enough. You cannot adapt to lost cultures. You cannot adapt to lost traditions. You cannot adapt to lost history. You cannot adapt to starvation [clapping] and you cannot adapt to extinction.
Kai: David, what are some examples of the things that people are already experiencing in places that are not actually responsible for the destruction of the climate? What are some of the things that you talk about in the article?
David: There's an ongoing famine right now in Madagascar, where as many as half a million people are experiencing extreme hunger and probably 30,000 and 50,000 are in the brink of death from that, and what the UN has called the first climate famine. There are droughts, intense flooding, much beyond what anybody has experienced in Sub-Saharan Africa or really across south Asia. You have unprecedented heat waves.
Although the truth is, we actually know a lot less about the heat impacts and some of these other climate impacts as well, because climate scientists don't even really study the global south of the developing world nearly as much as they study the global north. Our data is much more piecemeal, but all told there are huge problems with using economic projections as total measures of this stuff. I think to some degree they're useful because they do collate all of the impacts.
You're seeing already across the global south, many countries having their GDPs reduced by 20, 30% from what they would be without climate change already today. If you project those impacts forward several decades, you're talking about many of these countries potentially losing the very possibility of economic growth at all because of the combined impacts on agriculture, in drought. There's also a relationship between temperature and violence. It tends to create more conflict both within states and between states.
It's really the whole gamut. One of the other activists I spoke to in the article, an Indian activist named Disha Ravi said to me, very bluntly, like in India, we have the whole climate crisis. It's not one impact it's like, you want floods we got those, you got droughts we got those, you've got water shortages we've got those, you got hurricanes we've got those. In fact, India is, according to some research, expected to shoulder the burden of about a quarter of all global climate impacts this century, even though of course it's just one country.
Kai: Is it also the case that, you mentioned that there's research showing that this is already making poor countries poor. Is the research showing that it's making rich countries richer?
David: There's some research to suggest that particularly in Scandinavia, Canada and in Russia that the impacts are positive and will continue to be positive. It makes some farmland up there more productive, people in fact they're more productive economically when they at certain temperature levels. These are countries that are quite cold and they're being made slightly warmer.
The US is already suffering a little bit and is expected to suffer actually somewhat considerably this century if warming trends continue, not like people in India or Uganda or Kenya will, but at a different level than the countries of Northern Europe we think often as our peers will, and much more in line with the countries of the Mediterranean, who are again also suffering already from climate impacts although much smaller ones than those felt in the developing world.
Kai: David, in your article you do try to do some math to get an actual number for what wealthy nations owe for all of this damage, and having profited from this damage, as you put out. It's complicated, and you say you do this as more of a propagation than a real accounting but still it adds up to $250 trillion. Why that number?
David: Well, I started with on the fact that we know, we talked earlier, carbon hangs near for centuries. It doesn't really disappear. Any damage that's been done or any carbon that's been produced it's still up there. It's still on the ledger. We know the total amount of carbon and we can divide it country by country. The US is responsible for about 20% of all global historical emissions, which is about twice as many as the country that's produced the second most which is China.
China, of course, has somewhere between three and four times as many people, so on a per capita basis we're at something like 10 times the Chinese impact. Many of the countries that followed on that ledger had done even less. The US towers above all of the other countries in the world in terms of its responsibility for this crisis. That's the like, how much carbon did we put into the air tabulation? Then the other part is, how much would it cost to take that carbon out?
This is a little bit complicated but I tried to take seriously the real meaning of the term reparations, and try to figure out what the dollar amount would be to actually repair the climate. Not just as Vanessa Nekate was talking about. Not just to pay for the damage that's been caused but to actually undo the damage that's been caused to the atmosphere. That may sound a little hard fetch, but actually first of all we do it all the time.
Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen, but we also have technology that can do it or promises to do it at significantly greater scale. There are a lot of problems with this technology. There are limitations. It's extremely expensive, much more expensive than avoiding putting carbon in the atmosphere in the first place. We do have those machines, they do take carbon out of the air and they do store that carbon permanently.
While they're doing it now for something $500 or $600 a ton of carbon, most researchers expect that within a decade or so, especially with public support, that figure could fall to about a $100 a tone. I use that figure $100 a ton.
Kai: To clarify because with public support meeting that, the government could buy the carbon itself.
David: Unfortunately there's no market for the captured carbon at this point at all, which means for any of this tech to go forward and for any of this repair, climate repair, to take place will require public support, public investment. It's possible that some markets will develop but probably none of the scale that we're talking about if we're really hoping to actually undo the damage that we've done to the climate and eventually, reduce carbon concentrations below where they are now.
All you have to do is multiply $100 a ton by the number of tons that we produce. The US has produced 509 gigatons which is 509 billion tons. You multiply 509 billion by 100 and you get $50 trillion. That's the US debt. You can do that for all the individual countries of the world, or you could do it for all the countries of the world as a whole which it gives you the figure. That you mentioned earlier which is 250 trillion. That is obviously a lot, it's more than half of all the wealth that exists in the world today.
One of the appealing things about even entertaining this thought experiment is that carbon capture technology like this, carbon removal technology like this doesn't have to take place in the next 10 years. Which means we wouldn't have to pay that $250 trillion bill by 2030. In fact, it would be designed to operate in an ongoing way, possibly over the course of a century or more. If you were talking about funding an effort like this at that timescale, then the dollar figure shrinks considerably.
If you're doing $250 trillion over 100 years, you have a much smaller bill than if you're trying to do it in single decade. A lot of activists point out absolutely rightly, we don't want to lean too much on this tech. We don't want to trust in it too much because it's often understood to be a an invitation to continue burning fossil fuels. We wouldn't be able to do the work of climate repair and climate restoration.
Kai: It is in fact that fossil fuel companies, it's something that they point to they say, oh we'll happily do this.
David: When they talk about their net zero targets they're almost entirely talking about just funding carbon removal in the second half of the century, when they assume it will be very cheap. There is that moral hazard problem. We do need to get to net zero to really entertain this project because if we're still putting carbon in the atmosphere, it's going to be that much more difficult that much more expensive to continue taking it out.
Yet, if you're thinking about engineering or mobilizing a political response to climate change, not just on the next five or 10 years, which is how most advocates have thought over the last couple of years, but engineering response that would take place over 50 years or 100 or 150. That really does change some of the logic. It doesn't mean that the political forces that could govern systems like this could be very different than they are today.
May even be engineered in a much more progressive way to benefit the people chiefly in the global south, all the poor people and richer parts of the world as well, rather than to benefit the fossil fuel companies, which is how the system is set up today.
Kai: Let's sneak in one more caller Aaron in Queens. Aaron, we've just got a couple of minutes so if you can just quickly skip, get your question or thought out?
Aaron: It's more of a comment. I basically think there's just a ton of hypocrisy in this whole conversation and that we all talk about the fact that the climate crisis is a major issue, yet I'm sitting here driving down the FDR right now. We're all trying to get home. Day-to-day we walk into Starbucks and we get a cup of coffee, and we throw our coffee cup in the garbage can. No one is changing their day-to-day life. In the end, when we talk about the fact that corporations have to make a big change but most people in the grand scheme of things are not changing anything in their lives.
Kai: Thanks for that Aaron. David, if I can add to it as we wrap up is, we have the scientific silver bullets out there. It's complicated. It costs a lot of money, but you make the case that we can do something about this but, much like what Aaron was saying, the problem is human beings. It's not the science. It's our ability to work together on this. That is the failure. There feels it's a higher hurdle than just science. I just want to put that to you as a closing thought.
David: I think even talking about the renewable role that rollout. The challenges there, the obstacles there aren't on scientific or technological they're political. That's how I see the question of hypocrisy too which is, I think that charge is often overused because really what the hypocrisy is, is the gap between individual behavior and collective desire. I think in many ways that's what politics is for. It allows us to be better people together than we would be as individuals.
It's only when politics fails that we depend on individuals to do all of the moral work on their own. I think that's asking too much of people. I think absolutely Aaron is right on that. If we had a politics that truly worked and understood the collective benefits of decarbonization, we wouldn't have to ask individuals to shoulder the burden, the same way that we don't ask individuals to donate their paychecks to the local school board. We have Taxes to do that.
We should have systems like that oriented around the stabilizing the climate's future and securing a prosperous generous, equitable world for us all for generations to come. We don't but we should. That's not a failure of individuals. That's a failure of our politics.
Kai: David Wallace-Wells writes for New York Magazine, has article published earlier this month is, The case for climate reparations. David thanks for joining us.
David: Much welcome.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Mixing by Jared Paul. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina De Heer, Karen Frillmann and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_ Wright.
Of course, I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show, Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, take care of yourselves. Thanks for listening.
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