I can think of three billion reasons why President Bush should agree to take action on climate change at this week's G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, one for every person in the world living on less than two dollars a day. These people are not responsible for global warming, but they will pay the highest price if wealthy countries refuse to do their fair share.
The good news is that Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has put forward a set of proposals that, if adopted by G8 leaders, would be the kind of breakthrough that the world needs to start moving in the right direction. The bad news is that the G8 seems to be having a hard time reaching consensus and the Bush administration is by all accounts a big part of the reason why.
G8 leadership on climate change is essential because the U.S., U.K., Germany, Japan, France, Russia, Italy and Canada, are not just the "world's leading industrialized countries," as the G8 is sometimes called, they are also the world's leading contributors to climate change. G8 countries account for only about 13 percent of the world's population, but they emit about half of the world's greenhouse gases.
As a result, the positions of the G8 leaders will affect not only the citizens of G8 countries, but also the billions of poor and innocent people around the world that are struggling to meet their most basic needs and are not responsible for creating the problem in the first place. This dilemma is a big part of what people mean when they talk about the "moral imperative" to take action to fight climate change.
President Bush says that he refuses to accept binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless major developing countries like China and India agree to binding targets of their own, but there are good reasons why the world's wealthiest countries should have to move first and fastest.
If you add it all up, the US and Europe alone account for more than half of the accumulated global emissions over the past two hundred years, while China has been responsible for less than eight percent of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. Even taking into consideration China's recent economic growth, each person in the United States still emits on average over five times more greenhouse gases per year than a person in China.
The gap between India and the United States is even more extreme. There are more people in India without access to electricity than the entire population of the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada combined. That means about 500 million people in India without so much as a light bulb in their homes, yet the world's wealthiest and most powerful country is refusing to accept binding targets until India agrees to do so as well.
None of this is to say that countries like India and China shouldn't do more to fight climate change. They should. But it is to say that, if justice is the issue, those that are disproportionately responsible for the problem, and best equipped to deal with it, should take the lead.
Then there is Africa. Over the past two centuries, the 50 least developed countries in the world, most of which are in Africa, have together contributed almost nothing to climate change, less than 0.5 percent of cumulative global emissions. Today, the African continent holds about 14 percent of the world's population, but contributes only 3 percent of its global greenhouse gas emissions. This compared to the United States which contributes about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases but accounts for only five percent of its population.
The recently released United Nations Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a devastating portrait of what will happen in Africa if action is not taken to avoid dangerous climate change. According to the report, which enjoys overwhelming scientific consensus, Africa will be particularly hard hit by drought and water scarcity, thereby undermining food production, increasing hunger and dislocating communities across the continent. The Report notes that "In some [African] countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent by 2020."
In wetter areas, severe rains and storm surges will increase flooding and drown many coastal communities and, as the world warms, vector borne diseases such as malaria will migrate into new areas, putting more than a hundred million additional lives at risk over the course of the century.
We know what needs to be done to avoid the worst of these scenarios, and countries like Germany are pushing hard to convince countries like the United States that the G8 has a responsibility to show leadership. An agreement from the G8 that global temperature increases must be kept below 2 degrees Celsius, that global emissions need to peak in the next 10 to 15 years and then fall by more than 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change needs to complete negotiations on a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol by end-2009, is the kind of agreement that the world needs.
These goals are achievable. The G8 could begin by agreeing to end subsidies to oil and other fossil fuels, both at home and through foreign assistance programs like Export Credit Agencies and the World Bank. G8 countries could also support major investments in sustainable energy alternatives and take advantage of hundreds of billions of dollars in energy savings through dramatic improvements in energy efficiency.
There are moments in history that we look back on and remember the people who showed the courage of their convictions and the resolve to do what needed to be done. I hope future generations will remember the Heiligendamm Summit as an occasion when leaders chose to lead, and not as yet another missed opportunity to move the world in the right direction.