While I have my doubts that a global climate agreement is actually in the best interest of the planet (mostly because I think local adaptive management is likely to yield locally-appropriate, more accountable outcomes), it is worth remembering why there is so much debate about such an agreement.  Many people still fail to grasp why the developing world thinks it absurd that places like the US, Canada and Germany feel justified in demanding big cuts of them – there are two reasons:

1)Big cuts close the door to historical development pathways.  Most of the OECD countries went through a major industrialization phase that was hugely polluting.  China is going through this today on an unprecedented scale. While I think these pathways are, by and large, dead ends for development anyway these days, the fact is that a global climate deal more or less demands that currently poor countries abandon the very methods that we in the wealthier countries used to get to our current status.  This, by the way, is why there is a transfer of money and technology being built into the agreement – because the wealthy countries are not completely hypocritical, and therefore recognize that creating new development pathways will be expensive and beyond the means of most currently-poor countries.  If we are going to demand they change what they are doing, we should at least contribute financially to those changes.  So the next time you hear this deal called a huge wealth transfer, feel free to remind the speaker that the age of exploration, through colonialism, through the first 40 or so years of free trade was a giant wealth transfer from poor to rich.  We are only partially answering for that, no matter how large the transfers built into a climate agreement.

2) While we in the US like to point at China’s and (to a lesser extent) India’s total emissions as an argument they have to accept big cuts, and use the argument that 80% of future emissions growth will come from poorer countries to argue for cuts to all emissions, these demands fail to account for the per-person production of these emissions.  The Washington Post has two graphics, which they ran on their front page on December 10th, that capture this issue perfectly.  First, the total emissions graphic:

Yeah, that looks pretty bad – China produces more emissions than we do, and India is catching up quick.  Man, we’d better get those people under control . . . right?  Well, no . . .

Yep, per capita we in the US are big emissions hogs – per person, we crank out 385% of the average Chinese person, and a boggling 1333% more emissions than the average Indian.  Hell, Iran looks bad compared to China when we get down to per-person use.  This is the sticking point – what right do we in the US have to be sloppy with our emissions, yet demand cuts of everyone else?

Building a global deal that addresses both of these issues is damn near to impossible – we need to control total emissions, but at the same time recognize that not everyone emits equally.  Addressing the first of these is politically unpalatable for the poorer countries.  Addressing the latter is unpalatable here in the US and in many other wealthy countries. The result: weak global agreements that address neither.