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

Why is this important?

As I wrote in the newsletter a few weeks ago, one of the main discussions at COP27 was whether rich countries should help poorer, more vulnerable countries cope with the effects of climate change. Climate disasters were top of mind this year, especially after devastating floods in Pakistan killed more than 1,000 people, displacing millions more. Total cost estimates topped $40 billion.

After two weeks of negotiations, delegates at COP27 reached an agreement on damages and financing for damages… sort of. There will be a fund, but it is unclear how much there is and how it will work. You guessed it, another UN climate conference—COP28—will be held in Dubai next year.

Countries paying into damage and loss funds are not admitting blame or responsibility for climate damage. But all the talk around funding and climate damage begs the question: Who got us into this mess? And who should pay 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 are not very reactive, so they hang around for a long time after they are 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 argument floored me. It’s pretty intuitive, but it reframes the debate around national climate responsibility in my head. I’ve always heard that China is the country we should all be talking about when it comes to emissions. They are the biggest climate polluters today.

But when you add total emissions, it’s very clear: the United States is by far the largest total emitter, accounting for about a quarter of all emissions by far. This is followed by the EU, with around 17% of the total. Finally we have China, coming in third.