#4. “Climate Debtor” Nations Have “Colonized” the Atmosphere

by Project Censored
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In April 2021, President Joe Biden’s “Leaders Summit on Climate” brought together more than forty national leaders to address global carbon emissions. At the virtual summit, Biden outlined his administration’s goals to reduce US carbon emissions by 50–52 percent of the nation’s 2005 levels by 2030, and Vice President Kamala Harris, who introduced Biden, told summit attendees, “As a global community, it is imperative that we act quickly and together to confront this crisis.” The president’s summit was widely reported by corporate news media, including CNN, and coverage frequently included the vice president’s call for global responsibility.

By contrast, a September 2020 study, which examined long-term carbon dioxide emissions data to assess national responsibilities for the climate crisis, contradicted Harris’s sunny thoughts about a global community but received scant news coverage from establishment outlets.

As Sarah Lazare reported for In These Times, “An analysis published in the September issue of The Lancet Planetary Health shines new light on the outsized role of the United States, European Union and the Global North in creating a climate crisis that, while felt everywhere, is disproportionately harming the Global South.” The Lancet study, conducted by Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, found that the world’s richest, most industrialized nations—including the United States, Canada, members of the European Union, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan—are responsible for 92 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, while the Global South is responsible for only 8 percent.

As Hickel’s Lancet study stated, “To date, there has been no robust attempt to quantify national responsibility for the ecological, social, and economic damages caused by excess global CO2 emissions.” Previous research had not taken into account both the scale of national emissions and countries’ populations.

As Hickel told In These Times, his research began from the premises that “the atmosphere is a common resource” and that “all people should have equal access” to a fair share of it. Hickel calculated each nation’s fair share of a sustainable global carbon budget in conjunction with an analysis of “territorial emissions from 1850 to 1969, and consumption-based emissions from 1970 to 2015.” Using this data, he then assessed “the extent to which each country has overshot or undershot its fair share.” His report refers to the countries that have overshot their fair share of emissions as “climate debtors” and those that have undershot their fair share as “climate creditors.”

The biggest climate debtors include the United States (responsible for 40 percent of global overshoots), Russia and Germany (8 percent each), the United Kingdom (7 percent), and Japan (5 percent). By contrast, the world’s leading climate creditors to date include India (accounting for 34 percent of global “undershoots”), China (11 percent), Bangladesh (5 percent), Indonesia (5 percent), and Nigeria (4 percent). [Although China is within its fair share, Hickel told In These Times “we are all doomed” if China does not act quickly to reduce its emissions.]

The results, Hickel told In These Times, show that “the countries of the Global North have ‘stolen’ a big chunk of the atmospheric fair-shares of poorer countries, and on top of that are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions.” These countries have “effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons for the sake of their own industrial growth,” Hickel determined. His Lancet article elaborated on this process of atmospheric colonization: “Just as many of these countries have relied on the appropriation of labour and resources from the Global South for their own economic growth, they have also relied on the appropriation of global atmospheric commons, with consequences that harm the Global South disproportionately.” Therefore, he concludes, nations that operate as climate debtors should be responsible for damages sustained by undershooting countries.

Corporate news outlets appear to have entirely ignored the findings of Jason Hickel’s Lancet study. Among independent outlets, Common Dreams republished Lazare’s In These Times article, and Foreign Policy published an article by Hickel regarding the study. In assessing President Biden’s pledge to reduce US carbon emissions significantly by 2030, Jacobin magazine cited Hickel’s 2020 Lancet report, noting that, by his calculation, the United States had already by 2020 overshot its fair share of global carbon emissions by 40 percent. The New York Times quoted Hickel in an April 2021 opinion piece on Biden’s virtual summit on climate change, but only as a foil to the enthusiastic endorsement of a former UN climate official, and without offering any context for Hickel’s criticism. [The article quoted former UN climate official Christiana Figueres, who described Biden’s pledge as “an extraordinary step that should be commended.” Bokat-Lindell then noted, “But to others, like the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, the pledge is so ‘morally and politically untenable’ as to be almost insulting to the rest of the world.”]

Although it may be imperative to act “quickly and together” to reduce carbon emissions, as Vice President Harris asserted at the April 2021 climate summit, corporate media have failed to cover Hickel’s cutting-edge research, which demonstrates that the United States and other would-be leaders in addressing climate change are in fact, as the world’s worst climate debtors, disproportionately responsible for climate breakdown.

Sarah Lazare, “‘Colonizing the Atmosphere’: How Rich, Western Nations Drive the Climate Crisis,” In These Times, September 14, 2020.

Student Researcher: Sarah Uysal (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)

Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.