Photo: Millions of people around the world have joined forces to protest climate change and its impacts. Credit: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/21/across-the-globe-millions-join-biggest-climate-protest-ever.
Climate change activism tends to advocate for changes in individual lifestyles as a solution for global heating. By changing our consumption patterns, such as buying biodegradable products over plastic ones, many believe that we will eventually get to the point where we can avoid catastrophe. Prominent youth and students, such as Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old activist who founded the “Fridays for Future” global strike movement, have gained such momentum that students across the world began skipping school to protest outside their local authorities’ offices. One thing the Fridays for Future movement gets right is that the solution has to be top-down. Protests and small lifestyle changes may offer reassurance, but they will do little to bring about a substantial change. Global corporations have to adopt more sustainable economic practices in energy use, manufacturing, and trade.
Due to the unequal political experiences of developed and developing countries, countries are disproportionately affected by international climate change politics. There are four facets to this problem. First, global corporations are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions in both developed and developing countries, but the former group seems to have a historically higher responsibility toward this. Second, climate change mitigation strategies affect developing countries disproportionately due to their reliance on fossil fuels for energy and development. Third, transitioning to a green economy is too expensive for most developing countries. Fourth, the existing political establishment benefits from an unsustainable and capitalist economy, thus blocking the transition to a green economy.
Over half of the global industrial emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producers. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report study found that only 100 active fossil fuel producers including ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton, and Gazprom contributed to 71% of the industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. That is a lot of damage for a handful of companies to inflict on the environment. Global corporations contribute to carbon emissions but are protected by government legislation that works in their favor. For example, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a merger between America’s largest pro-coal groups, has lobbied extensively to deny climate science and block climate policy. It has lobbied in support of President Donald Trump’s federal bailout of coal plants. It has also welcomed Trump’s repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would have dramatically cut U.S. carbon pollution.
A study done to estimate the responsibilities of developed and developing countries to global emissions made between 1850 and 2005 indicates that developed countries have contributed around 53%–61%, and developing countries approximately 39%–47%, to the increase in global air temperature, upper oceanic warming, and sea-ice reduction. This disproportionate cause and effect have often led to problems on the global stage. As exemplified by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the fundamental conflict was between the big emerging markets led by China and India, which insisted that the climate problem was for the industrialized economies to fix, and the United States, which refused to sign on to any deal that did not include China. This was at the root of U.S. opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. But developing countries such as India and China argued that for the Kyoto Protocol to be fair, it must reflect the responsibility of the largest polluters (developed countries) to take action first. For example, India is predicted to suffer huge losses from the impact of climate change if the U.S. does not curb domestic emissions. A recent report by the UNFCCC has found that besides sea-level rise, climate change will have an impact on the Indian monsoon, lead to the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers, and will cause water scarcity in most tropical Asia. Yet, developing countries also cannot afford to give up fossil fuels. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the developed world contributed to the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. New countries in the “Global South” found their independence in the mid-20th century, and they argued that they could not develop without the use of fossil fuels. Asking them to decarbonize their economies is expensive and would slow down growth.
Climate change mitigation strategies would affect developing countries disproportionately. These countries, classified by the World Bank as “poor and middle-income countries,” cannot sustain themselves economically without fossil fuels. They still remain the cheapest and most reliable form of energy that exists. Shifting to renewable energy requires expensive infrastructure, and long-term projects and possesses high risks. A Yale study found that converting the entire U.S. power grid to 100% renewable energy in the next decade is technologically and logistically attainable, and would cost an estimated $4.5 trillion. Given that the U.S. is a developed country, one can only imagine how high this cost would be for developing countries.
The existing political establishment in most of the world is a barrier to implementing climate-friendly policies. This is true for both developing and developed countries. Incentives are largely shaped by economic and bureaucratic interests. To reach targets set by countries during the Paris Agreement in 2015, transitioning to renewable and carbon-free energy sources, such as nuclear energy, is essential. However, this transition has been blocked by big energy corporations and exporters. These are large and profitable corporations whose entire business model will be destroyed by decarbonization, including Western oil giants like Exxon. Of the 10 companies that dramatically increased their carbon dioxide emissions over the last five years, four were Indian and two were Chinese.
Energy is a business for capitalist states. Twelve of the top 20 corporate carbon dioxide emitters are state-owned. The national oil corporations of Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Algeria, and Venezuela are the pillars of their respective economies and state funds. Thus, any attempt to reduce reliance on their exports and products would be met with heavy opposition. As of 2014, the global oil and gas oil firms listed on stock exchanges around the world were worth a combined $4.65 trillion. This allows them tremendous lobbying power over governments and policymakers around the world, making divestment from carbon-heavy fossil fuels even more difficult. Developing countries are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon since they are more reliant on sources of energy to fuel development.
Many developing countries have large populations they need to support, with few resources at their disposal. Some even experience ethnic and tribal conflicts over these resources. The domestic political climate forces them to adopt short-term goals. For example, disagreements over the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth among Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities have often led to violence. In democratic developing countries, politicians want to appeal to median voters, whose primary concerns are providing for their families. The long-term goals of securing clean energy in the country are not as significant to them.
Unfortunately, global corporations are willing to offer cheap commodities to help such countries meet their needs. They create jobs and promote development in rural regions of developing economies. They are protected by powerful lobbying groups that have power over policymakers. Developing countries face a dilemma—although scientists predict that they will be disproportionately affected by climate change, they refuse to shift to cleaner energy for the purpose of development, which is cheaper than using fossil fuels and other unsustainable methods. Most of them firmly believe that climate change action should reflect the responsibility of major polluters, i.e., the developed countries. This dilemma has led to a lack of collective action against climate change. The different sets of challenges faced by developing and developed countries respectively have led to not just one, but multiple battles against climate change. Unless fair and equitable policies are enforced, and affordable and logistically possible ways of transitioning to green energy are made available, an achievable consensus seems bleak.
Vanisha Sampat a graduate student at New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, working toward a master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Asian Studies. In 2019, she graduated from Bocconi University with a bachelor’s degree in International Politics and Government.