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Why developed countries should subsidize a global price on carbon

 

Wind Farm in China

The US must push for a global price on carbon, argues Amy Larkin, because it will enable industrializing nations to pursue low-carbon development – like this wind energy farm in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, China. Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Why developed countries should subsidize a global price on carbon” was written by Amy Larkin, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th August 2014 13.00 UTC

We demonstrated that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” – the late Republican senator Howard Baker (Tennessee), co-sponsor of the Clean Air Act of 1970

A wise Grenadian recently asked me this very clear question:

My country is poor and we recently discovered oil, which will make us richer. Why should this oil be restricted or more expensive to exploit when your nation’s oil boom paid none of its environmental expenses?

A Chinese high school student recently asked me this similarly clear question:

My country’s manufacturing base means that my family moved from abject poverty to the middle class, and in my nation, hundreds of millions of others have done the same. Why should this manufacturing be more expensive by having to pay a cost for carbon when your nation’s manufacturing boom did not?

I grew up in the 1960s, a decade when my family, my New York City neighbors, and tens of millions of other Americans were catapulting from poverty into the middle class. It was a great feeling. For perhaps the first time in modern history, large swaths of our society had enough money to purchase homes, spend on surplus and luxurious foods, hire household help, take vacations and buy new stuff on a regular basis.

This social and economic mobility was the envy of much of the world. And I’m certain the accompanying optimism helped open our hearts and minds to the great human rights revolutions of the past 50 years.

There was a shadowy side to this extraordinary period in American manufacturing, consumption and innovation, of course. Deadly air pollution in Los Angeles killed or sickened tens of thousands in the 1940s. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire a dozen times in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, it was discovered that industrial solvents buried in the ground were causing rampant birth defects in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York.

American consumers and industries behaved as if the air, water and land were our inexhaustible dumping ground.

We largely still behave this way. But now most of our manufacturing occurs elsewhere, which only complicates understanding this un-virtuous circle. China manufactures most of our stuff – and we criticize China for the pollution this creates. But the only reason America’s air and water have become as clean as they are is because some visionary Democrats and Republicans (with the support of a burgeoning environmental movement) worked together in the 1970s to pass the Clean Air and Water acts, highlights of American legislative history.

Cleaning up our air and water pollution remain ongoing challenges, but at least there are legislative benchmarks for guidance and enforcement.

Today we must fight for a worldwide price on carbon just as Americans fought for restrictions on air and water pollution generations ago. This is the only way to level the international business playing field so the biggest polluter does not make the biggest profit.

There is no us and them when it comes to air, land and water. These basic elements of survival are all approaching their limits at just the same time as the next billion people are becoming new consumers and leaving poverty behind. Something’s gotta give.

Which takes us back to the thorny questions raised by my Grenadian and Chinese colleagues. Who’s gonna pay for the transition to a low carbon economy? Those of us who caused today’s problems, or the billions of people whose regions are finally poised to rise out of poverty? This debate is part of what’s holding up a new United Nations climate treaty.

 

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