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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Climate Change Affects Largest Greenhouse Gas Producers the Least: Is Legal Action the Solution?

climate change

Researchers from Dartmouth College recently released a new study in which they’ve tallied up the costs of climate change along with the economic benefits of such activities. The study’s authors sought to determine just how much economic damage that the Global North has done to the Global South with the former’s reckless release of greenhouse gases. In demonstrating that the world’s advanced economies have shifted the consequences of their growth to the southern hemisphere, the report opens the door for restitution. However, financial compensation is not enough to restore climate equity. While top emitters must be held accountable for the total cost of doing business, they cannot be allowed to continue such business as usual.

Only 10 countries are behind 67 percent of worldwide economic losses due to climate change. Yet, those same countries reap 70 percent of the economic rewards from emissions-causing activity. Of the 10 largest emitters, the U.S. leads the pack in causing 16.5 percent of worldwide economic losses, with China not far behind at 15.8 percent. Meanwhile, instead of suffering their own losses, the two countries came out on top in economic rewards at 18 and 16.8 percent, respectively. Additionally, the five biggest greenhouse gas emitters (U.S., China, Russia, Brazil and India) were responsible for $6 trillion dollars in global losses from 1990 to 2014.

The report, aptly titled National Attribution of Historical Climate Damages, dispels the myth that climate change is a “collective action problem” and points instead to the way activities by certain individual countries are having a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world. Christopher W. Callahan, one of the researchers on the study, is quoted by Dartmouth as saying, “Nations need to work together to stop warming, but that doesn’t mean that individual countries can’t take actions that drive change. This research upends the notion that the causes and impacts of warming only occur at the global level.” But will this end the inevitable standoffs between top greenhouse emitters who refuse to do enough unless others agree to a certain standard as well, or will it make it worse? 

Senior researcher Justin Mankin, also quoted by Dartmouth about the study’s outcome, said, “Greenhouse gases emitted in one country cause warming in another, and that warming can depress economic growth. This research provides legally valuable estimates of the financial damages individual nations have suffered due to other countries’ climate-changing activities.”

According to the study, while countries with colder baseline temperatures tend to release the most greenhouse gases, warming temperatures have not had overall negative economic effects quite yet. Rather, these countries’ GDPs have increased. Warm countries, on the other hand, have suffered much greater losses due to the effects of climate change on crop yields and labor, with an average GDP loss of one to two percent. Of course, as “warm” countries that are also releasing more than their share of greenhouse gasses, Brazil and India are exceptions. This begs the question: How much of their own economic growth are these two countries stunting by not better controlling their emissions? 

The economic effects of climate change aren’t expected to slow down anytime soon. In fact, a worldwide economic downturn of 11 to 14 percent is predicted for the middle of the century. While the big emitters like the U.S. won’t be immune to these effects, it is no longer up for debate that the Global South will suffer the brunt of the disaster. The Global North, therefore, has a moral imperative not only to compensate those who have suffered from its growth, but to immediately and drastically change the way that business is done so that all costs are paid by those who benefit. Legal action may very well be the only recourse — not only through lawsuits to restore the costs that have been wrongfully suffered by the Global South, but also in the form of injunctions to stop the continued flood of emissions.

Image credit: klimkin via Pixabay

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro