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The US and China are pointing fingers at each other over climate change

Why it matters

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in the newsletter, one of the major discussions at COP27 was about whether richer countries should help poorer, more vulnerable nations pay for the impacts of climate change. Climate disasters were top of mind this year, especially after devastating flooding in Pakistan killed over 1,000 people and displaced millions more. Total cost estimates topped $40 billion. 

After two weeks of negotiations, delegates at COP27 reached an agreement on financing for loss and damage … sort of. There will be a fund, but it is still not clear how much will be in it and how it will work. Details are set to be ironed out at, you guessed it, another UN climate conference—COP28 is scheduled for next year in Dubai. 

Countries paying into the loss and damages fund aren’t admitting blame or accepting liability for climate damages. But the creation of the fund and all the discussions around climate damage have brought up some questions: Who got us into this mess? And who should be paying for it?

Not-so-ancient history

When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, history matters. Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Some greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, have long lifetimes: they’re not very reactive, so they hang around for a long time after they’re emitted. 
  • Warming is a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • So when we’re talking about climate responsibility, we should consider total emissions through history. 

When I was first learning about climate science, this logic floored me. It’s so intuitive, but it recast the debate around national climate responsibility in my head. I’d always heard that China was the country we should all be talking about when it came to emissions. They’re the biggest climate polluter today, after all. 

But when you add up total emissions, it’s super clear: the US is by far the greatest total emitter, responsible for about a quarter of all emissions ever. The EU is next, with about 17% of the total. Finally we have China, coming in third. 

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