Dear Americans, stop using China and India as climate change scapegoats

Recent comments on a climate change post that illustrate this faulty argument.

I spend a lot of time on this blog debunking bad arguments, and I have previously devoted a lot of effort to debunking bad arguments against man-made climate change. There is, however, one extremely common argument that I have not previously addressed. I’ve been reluctant to deal with it because it is an argument about what we should do, rather than the facts of climate change. Nevertheless, it is extremely problematic and prevalent. Therefore, I think it is worth discussing.

The argument in question is made by Americans and states that there is no point in America reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because developing countries, India, China, etc. aren’t going to change their practices (you can see several examples of this argument in the screenshot from recent comments on my Facebook page). Underpinning this argument (and sometimes directly stated) is the assumption that America does a better job of dealing with emissions than other countries do, and countries like China are really the major guilty parties. This is one of those rare arguments where every aspect of it is wrong. The premises are incorrect, and even if they were true, the conclusion doesn’t follow from those premises. So, let’s talk about this for a minute.

A comparison of absolute greenhouse gas emissions among the biggest contributors. Any country that produced at least 5% of the global emissions is shown, with all other countries grouped into either Africa, Europe (without Russia), South America, or Other. The data are 2012 data from the European Commission Joint Research Centre.

First, we need to be clear about just how much America contributes to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, because it is substantial. The USA produces roughly 14% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, the entire continents of Africa and South America combined produce only 11%. So those developing countries that proponents of this argument are so worried about aren’t the big contributors. Even when you combine a huge number of them, you don’t meet the emissions from the US. Indeed, India, which is one of the countries that nearly always gets singled out by this argument, only produces 7% of the world’s greenhouse gases. To be clear, that’s substantial, and it is a problem, but trying to shift the blame from the USA to India is insane, because the US produces way more greenhouse gases than India does. To be fair, China does produce a lot more than the US in terms of absolute numbers, but, as I’ll elaborate on below, China has a substantially larger population than the US.

If we really want to understand how much of a role each country is having in climate change, we also need to look at the data per capita (i.e., corrected for population size) rather than just the raw numbers. Looking at these data can become messy, because there are a bunch of tiny countries that, for various reasons, produce a lot of emissions per person. As a result, they score very high on per capita emissions, but are only contributing a tiny amount in absolute terms. The sensible approach is, therefore, to look at per capita emissions among the countries that are large contributors to the absolute amount of emissions. For the sake of this post, I set that threshold as countries that produce at least 1% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. As you can see from the graph below, only 19 countries meet that criteria, and most of them aren’t countries that people would label as “developing.”

Greenhouse gas emissions per capita for any country that produced at least 1% of the world’s total emissions. I have colored the US, China, and India in red since they are the countries that are usually involved with the argument I am addressing. The data are 2012 data from the European Commission Joint Research Centre.

When looking at the per capita data for those countries, Australia and Canada are the worst offenders, and they absolutely should be held to account for that and should change their practices, but they only produce about 1.3% and 1.6% (respectively) of the world’s total emissions. So they are still fairly small players. The US, on the other hand, is a close third place for per capita emissions and, again, has very high total emissions. But what about China and India, the countries that people are so worried about? China is in 11th place, and India is in last place for per capita emissions (among countries who contribute at least 1% to the total emissions). Let me try to put the numbers this way: China has about 18.4% of the world’s population and produces 23% of the emissions. India has 17.2% of the population and produces 7% of the emissions. In contrast, the US has a mere 4.4% of the population but produces 14% of the emissions! To put that another way, on average, each American produces as many greenhouse gases as 2.2 Chinese people or 7.8 Indians. Again, to be clear, the emissions produced by China and India are a problem. I’m not suggesting otherwise, but stop pretending that they are the problem while simultaneously acting as if the US is some magical greenhouse gas utopia. It isn’t. The US is one of the worst offenders and produces far more greenhouse gases per person than either China or India.

Now that we have cleared up the actual numbers, let’s talk for a minute about the notion that the US is the only country that is taking action. This is blatantly false. Indeed, if you’ve paid even the tiniest bit of attention to world politics over the past few years, it should be obvious that this is false because of the Paris Agreement. This agreement was signed by China, by India, by all of those developing countries people are so worried about, etc. Do you remember which country backed out if though? I seem to recall it being the USA. Other countries (including China and India) are, in fact, investing in renewable energy. Similarly, China is implementing an emissions trading program to try to reduce their emissions. This notion that other countries aren’t acting is simply false.

Additionally, even if America was the only country that changed its actions, a large reduction in America’s emissions would still have global benefits, because, again, it is the second biggest contributor to climate change in absolute terms and one of the largest per capita. People seem to have this notion that climate change is a problem with a binary solution: either we fix it or we don’t, but that is an insane way to view the problem. Global warming is a continuum, and every 10th of a degree of warming matters and makes things worse. So, let’s imagine for a second that America drastically cuts its emissions but no other countries do, or perhaps they do so more slowly. What happens? Well, climate change still happens, but it occurs more slowly and/or doesn’t become as extreme. So, there would still be a global benefit even if America was the only country to take serious action (again, other countries are taking action, often more seriously than the US).

Finally, I want to ask, since when was, “other people were doing it too” a valid excuse for harmful actions? Let’s be clear here, how we should deal with climate change is really an ethical dilemma, not a scientific one. Science can tell us what is causing climate change, what we need to do to limit the warming, what happens if we don’t limit the warming, etc., but it can’t tell us what we should do, because that requires a moral judgement that science can’t make. Science does tell us, however, that the consequences of not taking action will be dire. They aren’t going to end modern civilization, but millions of people will die, and, indeed, thousands have already died as a result of climate change. Further, those negative effects will disproportionately impact the poorest members of our planet, even though they are the ones that contributed the least to the problem. I’m not going to enter into a lengthy philosophical rant here, but for me personally, that scenario is a problem. I personally think that human life has value and there is a moral imperative to minimize the loss of human life. Thus, I think that people need to realize that our actions have consequences, and regardless of what other countries do, the actions of Americans contribute to a problem that costs human lives. Now, maybe that isn’t an issue for you. Maybe you don’t value human life. I’m not here to convince you otherwise, but if you do value human life, then you need to take responsibility for your country’s actions rather than trying to pass the buck off to other countries. The fact that another country does something immoral does not justify you or your country doing something immoral.

In conclusion, I want to be clear that I am not attacking America, suggesting that it is entirely responsible for climate change, etc. This is a global problem and every country needs to take responsibility for their role in it. Further, countries like China and India do play major roles, but so does America, and Americans need to stop trying to shift the blame. It is a fact that America produces a disproportionate level of greenhouse gases and is a major contributor to climate change. It produces the second highest level of greenhouse gases in absolute terms, and per capita, it produces far more emissions than either China or India. So, this notion that other countries are the real culprits is blatantly false. America bears a huge portion of the blame for climate change. Additionally, it is insane to act as if America is the only country that is taking action against climate change, because it is lagging behind many countries, and countries like China and India are, in fact, making changes. There are certainly more changes that need to be made across the board, but again, that doesn’t mean that America shouldn’t do its part. Finally, even if America was the only country that was taking climate change seriously (which is clearly not the case), that still would not absolve America of its responsibility, and a reduction in America’s emissions would still be beneficial.

Data: I used the data from the European Commission Joint Research Centre. I originally chose this source because it had fairly recent global data for CO2 emissions (2016), but I ultimately decided it would be more meaningful to look at total greenhouse gas emissions (which only go up to 2012 at the time I wrote this). The patterns in both data sets are very similar and would in no way change my arguments, but feel free to play with the CO2 data if you want.

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20 Responses to Dear Americans, stop using China and India as climate change scapegoats

  1. But it won’t be very long before China and India ARE producing as much per capita. China and India are in reality doing very little to reduce CO2 emissions. Sure they’re building some Wind/solar but they are under no illusion that if they want the cheap reliable energy necessary to raise up all of their population to Western levels of affluence, they have no option but to vastly expand coal and gas electricity generation. This is exactly what they are doing. With that context it does indeed make a nonsense of anything the US and Europe does. Any reductions they make will be utterly dwarfed by the increase that is happening in India and China and even maybe Africa.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      China’s current plan is to level off its CO2 emissions by 2030, with reductions happening after that. Also, they are rather substantially investing in renewable energy (hundreds of billions of dollars). So I think you are grossly underestimating their actions.

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      • Scott Lancaster says:

        They are also opening 2+ coal fired power plants per month on average. While they have a “plan”, there has been little actual movement from China.

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          China is still increasing its fossil fuel use. That much is true and almost inevitable (unless it wanted to go with nuclear power, which I personally would prefer). However, it is also true that they are investing extremely heavily in renewable energy. Last year, for example, over half of the world’s investment in new solar energy production came from China, and they are still investing hundreds of billions of additional dollars in renewable energy. Also, if you look at their energy over time, their investment in new coal plants has been decreasing annually for the last decade or so. Again, I’m not saying China is perfect, far from it. They are a major contributor to climate change, but the notion that they aren’t shifting their energy sector is incorrect. When you actually start looking at their investments in clean energy, they seem to be pretty serious about following their plan and leveling off CO2 emissions by 2030, followed by reductions.

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  2. Todd D. says:

    “America is not the leader in reducing emissions, not even close.” depends how you measure that, because at least for the last decade for electricity generation, they are indeed close https://twitter.com/iain_staffell/status/1069912521124012034

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I’d hardly call that result “close.” Regardless of the semantics of my word choice though, I was also referring to actions being taken right now, not simply actions taken in the past, and with China dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy, I strongly suspect that 10 years from now, that graph will look quite different.

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      • Todd D. says:

        What data are you using? I ask because the International Energy Agency states “While most major economies saw a rise, some others experienced declines, including the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan. The biggest decline came from the United States” & “The biggest decline came from the United States, where emissions dropped by 0.5%, or 25 Mt, to 4 810 Mt of CO2, marking the third consecutive year of decline” https://www.iea.org/geco/emissions/

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        • Fallacy Man says:

          I was looking more at renewable energy as a percent of total energy production by a country, by which standard, the US lags far behind many other countries. These data are actually from the EIA, but the layout in wikipedia is easier to use https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_production_from_renewable_sources

          Also, again, I’m looking at how seriously countries are investing in renewable energy. Looking at percent change is CO2 output is problematic, in my opinion, because a country like China is still growing industrially. As a result, its CO2 emissions will almost certainly go up, even if it takes a more aggressive approach to switching to clean energy.

          Nevertheless, you have at the very least demonstrated that my statement is confusing so I will attempt to revise it to avoid further confusion.

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  3. horvendile2 says:

    This doens’t strengthen or weaken your argument but the countries with large per capita emissions tend to be large countries low population density. This makes sense as more energy is used for travel in them. This data is old, but people in New York State produce only 45% of the CO2 of the rest of the US mainly because of New York City, a dense region where public transit is used far more than the rest of the nation. Apartments use far less energy than individual houses and that also has a large effect. Much of the effect is not virtuous environmental awareness but geography. Which is not to discount efforts to be Green. It does suggest a strategy of encouraging people to live in high density areas, the exact opposite of what the US does. We subsidize private homes with tax benefits and spend more on highways that public transit.

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  4. Kamron Brinkerhoff says:

    Here’s something I want to add: people often criticize proposed international CO2 limits for favoring developing countries over developed countries, but I think a fair solution needs to favor developing countries in some way. Developed countries owe their high standard of living to the past 100 years of fossil fuel use, and I would be willing to let poor countries burn more fossil fuels for now if it means more of their people could get clean water and electricity, even if that means other countries have to make up for it.

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  5. Rasmus says:

    Thanks for yet another good post.
    I must admit I’d hoped you would have included confounding factors such as the huge “export” of CO2 emmissions undertaken by e.g. the EU (where I live) by having a lot of our consumables produced in other regions. This has the effect of not showing the “true” CO2 emmision of our lifestyle. Plastic recycling, beef production, imported foods and consumer electronics are prime examples of this.
    I’m sure a similar thing takes place with USA, whereby a lot of Asia’s and South Amarica’s emmisions become mine…!

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  6. Sustainable Ranger says:

    Fallacy Man, have you read Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman? What do you think it will take for America to have a real “green revolution”?

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I have not read it, but I am pretty pessimistic about the odds of America taking serious drastic action that would be considered a revolution. The energy sector will eventually shift completely away from fossil fuels, but I expect it will continue to be slow progress rather than a revolution.

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  7. Chris says:

    To the author of this article:
    I’m very familiar with this subject and I’d be happy to educate you on how wrong you are.
    Kind regards,
    An environmental scientist.

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  8. Tabitha says:

    How about we stop picking at the USA for a change? The whole world looks at the USA as if it’s some evil empire. No matter what it does, you people whine and complain. Never mind the USA saving the WORLD, TWICE, in WW1&WW2. Never mind us eradicating Smallpox, and other vital medical and scientific developments that changed the world drastically for the better. Never mind the BILLIONS that we give out in aid to other countries EVERY YEAR!

    MAYBE we should just pull all that Aid and military support, and such. Let some petty dictator take over your countries in the next World War. Maybe we should just pull out, pull back, and cut the purse strings and support. Then we can watch this ungreatful and hateful world tear itself apart.

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