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Kai Wright: It's Notes from America, I'm Kai Wright. It has been a summer of extreme heat right the way around the globe. July was the hottest month on record worldwide, thanks to a warming climate caused by human behavior. We know this much, but I only recently understood the extent to which those of us living today in the United States are uniquely responsible for the ongoing damage to the planet's climate.
I spoke to science writer David Wallace-Wells about this fact back in late 2021 after he wrote an essay in New York Magazine that offered some back-of-the-envelope math about the debt that we, as a country, owe the rest of the world for our emissions. I've been thinking about that conversation this summer and I want to share it again now. David pointed out that half of all carbon emissions ever produced by humankind have been put into the climate since 1996. Well, within my adult life.
David Wallace-Wells: 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 like 1750 or 1850 but, well, 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. From the 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, and at the national level, are alive today and often in power. Fully 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. Now, it's important to keep in mind, in 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 is 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 a climate crisis for centuries to come.
We often think about carbon emissions in terms of future emissions trajectories. How can we get China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa on a cleaner path? Those things are really important, but we're at the point we are today 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. It's our fault that we're in the bind that we're in today.
Kai Wright: Well, in the our fault part, and we are going to talk some about how you do this math and what could come from it but just to dwell on this, another stat you give 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 company's level of responsibility and response, and just how we as individuals then enter into this conversation.
David Wallace-Wells: I think in a country like the US, it's easy to think that there are basically two teams. There's like a team science climate, which is basically progressive or liberal, and there's a team denier conservative that's like 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 are 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 countries 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 emits something like 20 times 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, whether you support a Green New 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 responsibly, 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 brutal baseline, in which basically every American is just doing quite a lot of damage to the stability, well-being, livelihood, and potential for future human flourishing in the developing world.
Kai Wright: Along these lines, but challenging them a bit is there's somebody on Twitter that says that given the fact that big oil's 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 Wallace-Wells: Oh, absolutely. I don't want to minimize 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 over the last generation who, knowing everything that fossil fuel use was doing to the planet, nevertheless continued on in a business as usual way. I think those are real differentials. I don't mean to suggest the average American is as guilty as Rex Tillerson or whatever.
I just think it's important to understand that we are all also operating still 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 but 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, who are already experiencing the most intense impacts and 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 Wright: It's Notes from America. We'll be right back. 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 Wallace-Wells: 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, 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 but 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 and 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. We got droughts, we got those. You got wild water shortages, we 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 Wright: Is it also the case that you mentioned that there's research showing that this is already making poor countries poorer? Is the research showing that it's making rich countries richer?
David Wallace-Wells: 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, are more productive economically 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 of 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 folks in the developing world.
Kai Wright: 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 point out. It's complicated. 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 Wallace-Wells: Well, I started with the fact that we know, we talked earlier, carbon hangs in the air for centuries, so 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. On a per capita basis, we're at something like 10 times. The Chinese impact and many of the countries that follow down that ledger have 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 how much carbon did we put into the air tabulation. 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 tried to figure out what the dollar amount would be to actually repair the climate. Not just to pay for the damage that's been caused, but to actually undo the damage that's been caused to the atmosphere. They may sound a little farfetched, but actually, first of all, we do it all the time.
Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen. 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 like $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 $100 a ton. I use that figure $100 a ton.
Kai Wright: Just to clarify, because with public support, meaning that the government could buy the carbon itself.
David Wallace-Wells: Yes. 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 climate repair to take place, will require public support, public investment. It's possible that some markets will develop, but probably not at 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've produced. The US has produced 509 gigatons, which is 509 billion tons. You'd multiply 509 billion by 100 and you get $50 trillion. That's the US debt.
You could 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 gives you the figure, and that you mentioned earlier, which is 250 trillion. That is obviously a lot. One of the appealing things about even entertaining this thought experiment is that 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 are talking about funding an effort like this at that timescale, then the dollar figure shrinks considerably. 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 an invitation to continue burning fossil fuels, and we wouldn't be able to do the work of climate repair and climate restoration.
Kai Wright: It is in fact the fossil fuel companies, it's something that they point to. They say, "Oh, we'll happily do this."
David Wallace-Wells: Yes, when they talk about their net zero targets, they're almost entirely talking about just funding carbon removal in the second half the century when they assume it'll 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 5 or 10 years, which is how most advocates have thought over the last couple years, but engineering a response that would take place over 50 years or 100 or 150, that really does change some of the logic.
It does mean that the political forces that could govern systems like this could be very different than they are today and may even be engineered in a much more progressive way to benefit the people chiefly in the Global South, although poorer people in 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 Wright: Let's sneak in one caller, Aaron in Queens. Aaron, we've just got a couple of minutes, so if you can just quickly get your question or thought out.
Aaron: It's more of a comment. Basically, I think there's just a ton of hypocrisy in this whole conversation in 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 and we're all trying to get home. Day to day we walk into Starbucks and we get our cup of coffee and we throw our coffee cup in the garbage can and no one is changing their day-to-day life. In the end, 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 Wright: Thanks for that, Aaron. David, if I can add to it as we wrap up, so 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 what Aaron was saying, the problem is human beings, it's not the science, it's our ability to work together on this.
David Wallace-Wells: Even talking about the renewable rollout, the challenges there, the obstacles there aren't scientific or technological, they are political. That's how I see the question of hypocrisy too, which is I think that charge is often overused because really what 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 in 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 Wright: That was climate journalist David Wallace-Wells talking with me in 2021. We're going to continue the climate conversation next week by talking about what's been working because enough with the doom and gloom. What can we do? I hope you'll join us for that conversation too. Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Follow us wherever you get your podcast, and on Instagram @noteswithkai. I'm Kai Wright. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.
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