Study points to developing world feeling more impact from climate change

However, critics of the Australian research team's efforts say industrialized nations have and will be affected, too.

Rob Griffith/AP/File
In this 2014 file photo, smoke billows out of a chimney stack of steel works factories in Port Kembla, south of Sydney, Australia.

A study released Friday shows that the wealthiest 4 percent of the world’s population is creating 50 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions, but will likely suffer little impact resulting from climate change, such as increased frequency of natural disasters, changing habitats, human health impacts, and industry stress.

The study, generated by the Wildlife Conservation Society, likens greenhouse gas emissions from countries such as the United States and China to “second-hand smoke." The report is not being well received by some climate change experts who agree with the assessment of the inequity of the damage being done, but not with the impact assessments made by the authors.  

Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change” is authored by professors Glenn Althor, James E. M. Watson, and Richard A. Fuller.

Dr. Watson refers to the highest emitting countries, such as the US, Canada, Australia, China, and much of Western Europe as “smokers," he says in a phone interview from his office at the University of Queensland. Meanwhile, developing nations find themselves in a scenario that “is like a non-smoker getting [diagnosed with] cancer from second-hand smoke, while the heavy smokers continue to puff away.”

“We wanted to prove that the ones causing climate change weren’t feeling the brunt of it,” Watson says. “We used data sets on emissions. Also we used the DARA data set, which goes up to 2030, to show the vulnerability to climate change at a national level. We overlaid those two sets and got something really quite elegant.”

DARA is an independent non-profit organization concerned with the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian action for vulnerable populations affected by armed conflict and natural disasters.

“In line with the results of other studies, we find an enormous global inequality where 20 of the 36 highest emitting countries are among the least vulnerable to negative impacts of future climate change," writes Watson and his co-authors in their study, which was published in the journal Nature. "Conversely, 11 of the 17 countries with low or moderate GHG emissions, are acutely vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change. In 2010, only 28 countries (16 percent) had an equitable balance between emissions and vulnerability. Moreover, future emissions scenarios show that this inequality will significantly worsen by 2030.”

The study refers to nations causing the bulk of the issue as “free riders” and says that the lack of repercussions from their actions “acts as a disincentive for them to mitigate their emissions.”

“Generally, if you’re a nation who is vulnerable to climate change, you’re very likely to not be causing the problem,” Watson says. “Conversely, if you’re a nation causing climate change, you’re likely not to be vulnerable so there’s [a] mismatch between those causing the problem and those who are actually suffering from the problem, which is a very concerning mismatch around this equity issue.”

This is where others investigating climate change such as Joseph Romm, author of “Climate Change: What everyone needs to know,” beg to differ.

“I’m not that thrilled with this particular study,” says Mr. Romm in a phone interview. " 'Second-hand smoke’ is a good analogy but remember that first-hand smoke has plenty of problems too... It is certainly clear that the rich nations have gotten rich on fossil fuels and that many of the world’s poorest countries are going to suffer a great deal and they didn’t contribute at all. It’s also clear that the US isn’t doing its fair share. Those points are sort of indisputable.”

The study overstates the inequity issue, Romm says, adding, "I don’t like leaving people with the impression that it's only poor countries far away that are taking the brunt of climate change. We are the world’s breadbasket and very vulnerable to changes in precipitation, drought, snowstorm, and tornadoes. We’re a country that is quite vulnerable to changes in extreme weather events and sea level rise.”

Watson clarifies the point of the study by saying, “Everyone is vulnerable to climate change. It’s not that [poorer nations are] not vulnerable, it’s just that the ones who are extremely vulnerable are the ones who are not causing the problem. There is no doubt that every nation on earth – every human on earth – will be suffering some kind of consequence of climate change, now and into the future.”

“What’s concerning is that ever since 1993 and the Rio Earth Summit [of the United Nations], this whole concept of shared differentiated responsibilities has been central to negotiations and yet 20 years on this is completely ignored,” Watson says. “It’s doesn’t come up. It’s not dealt with. The Paris Agreement [from the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in December] may be a significant step forward in global climate negotiations. The inequity has to be rectified if this is to be a fair process.”

"With climate change, the stakes are particularly high for the world's poor,” writes Keith Gaby, communications director for the Climate & Air Environmental Defense Fund, in an email response to the study. “That’s part of the reason that those countries who did the most to cause this problem have a moral obligation to take ambitious action. That’s in addition to our responsibility to our own children and grandchildren."

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