Polar bears and their entire habitat are on the brink of destruction. The European heat wave of 2003 led to the deaths of 35,000 people. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Gulf Coast has been ravaged by increasingly destructive hurricanes. What do these things have in common you ask? They are all intimately linked to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
The question is whose fault is it; who is responsible for all of this devastation? It's a simple question, and on the surface it has a simple answer: everyone. If you've ever farted or defecated, then congratulations, you have emitted greenhouse gases. (In fact you've given off methane, which is sixty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; shame on you.) And since fossil fuels provide the majority of the world's energy, chances are that you and I are both contributing to the problem right now just using a computer.
Perhaps a better question is who is
most responsible for the greenhouse effect? In answering this question, we'll look at culpability on a national level.
Before looking at individual countries, consider this statistic: 74% of carbon dioxide emissions have been produced by 20% of world's population since 1950. This 20% of the population lives in developed nations and enjoys a high standard of living. A high standard of living means heavy energy consumption, and that's what causes the disparity. With regards to the question of responsibility then, these highly developed countries certainly deserve much of the credit.
But if we look at present conditions, the developing nation of China emits the most carbon dioxide per year rather than the U.S. as many people might reasonably expect. (I say reasonably because China didn't surpass the U.S. until 2007.) Per capita emissions are still much higher in developed nations, but the overall contribution from developing nations is on the rise. Driven by population growth and economic advances, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that developing nations will be responsible for half of the world's emissions by 2020.
Fortunately, most developed countries are committed to addressing the issue of climate change and taking action to reduce their emissions. This commitment manifested itself in the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty whereby ratifying parties agree to cap their carbon dioxide emissions at a specific level. This is given as a percentage increase or decrease on 1990 emissions, and it is based on the needs for each country. Thus, the U.S. would be required to reduce emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels while less developed countries can have emissions up to ten percent greater than 1990 levels. Truly developing countries don't have to cap emissions at all under this protocol. Developing countries are exempt in part because they haven't experienced the benefits of the cheap energy that fossil fuels provide. Their economies and citizens would suffer substantially if they were forced to curtail their emissions immediately.
Objecting to this exemption and citing the "uncertainty" about global warming, some developed countries have not ratified this treaty. The U.S. and Australia are two examples. The United States' refusal to ratify is especially destructive because the U.S. is such a major player in global affairs. This lack of leadership could undermine the entire agreement, and even if it doesn't, the U.S. is still one of the greatest emitters in the world. Returning to the question of responsibility, we find that nearly all developed countries have played a substantial role in causing the present global warming. However, the United States' failure to take action means that it is most at fault for exacerbating the problem in the future.