As the governments of the world gather at Glasgow for their global climate summit, this is occurring in the context of very sharp and intensifying inter-imperialist rivalry, especially now between the U.S. and China,1 and secondarily with countries like Russia. This is part of why the so-called official “international community” cannot come together to solve the problem of global warming under this system2—it is a “community” rife with conflict and driven by competing interests. While we don’t know exactly what will transpire in Glasgow, we do know from past accords like Paris, and from the initial emission reduction targets submitted going into Glasgow that this is not going to come close to what is needed at this moment in history—including as climate science has advanced and we have a fuller sense of the magnitude of the crisis.
As part of this, there is also likely to be intense jockeying on the “public relations” front, with the U.S. and Biden outrageously claiming “climate leadership.” On the one hand, the U.S. is the biggest driver of climate change in history; it has repeatedly tried to sabotage and block international climate agreements; the average emission of carbon per person in the U.S. is the highest of any major industrial economy in the world; and the U.S. is the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. On the other hand, the Democrats will be trying to score points against their global imperialist rivals for being laggards at dealing with climate change! And at the same time Biden will be maneuvering so this rotten business doesn’t get so exposing that they alienate the Democrats’ own social base in the U.S., which includes whole sections of people who are genuinely concerned about the climate.
Given this, it is important to have a scientific perspective on what the real deal is—who is disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and associated global warming—so their words and deeds can be critically assessed.
Here is the basic picture:
At current levels, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the use of fossil fuels, and the U.S. is the second largest. China emits more than twice as much CO2, one of the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming, as the U.S.—29 percent of the world’s emissions for China vs. 14 percent for the U.S.
But the more important statistic in terms of historic responsibility and causative factor for global warming is the cumulative amount of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s. This is crucial because once greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere, some of them stay there for hundreds of years.
First, the reality is that the U.S., UK, and Western Europe have been directly responsible for 52 percent of all CO2 emissions from 1751 to 2016. The U.S. alone has accounted for 25 percent of those cumulative emissions. Therefore, as James Hansen, noted climate scientist and one of those who sounded the alarm early on global warming, has pointed out, “the United States is, by far, more responsible than any other nation for the associated increase of global temperature.”3
According to Statista.com, “The United States has emitted more than 400 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the birth of the industrial revolution—making the U.S. the biggest contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions by far, having produced almost twice the amount of emissions as the second biggest emitter, China.”4 As Statista’s correspondent notes, “Up until the early 20th century, Europe was responsible for the majority of regional CO2 emissions, especially the United Kingdom where industrialization first spread from. It wasn’t until the mid-1850s that the United States began to make its mark on emission levels as the country began to grow into a major superpower.”
China’s emissions increased manifold since the defeat of socialism in 1976, and as a rapidly rising capitalist power, the outsourced “factory” for U.S. imperialism, with increased coal consumption for energy, which is the dirtiest of fossil fuels.5 All of this buttresses even more the need to get rid of this SYSTEM of capitalism-imperialism, here and around the world.
In sharp contrast, the poorest half of the world’s population—3.5 billion people—is responsible for just 10 percent of the cumulative carbon emissions.
Another important measure is country figures for CO2 emissions per person (per capita emissions). Both in terms of current emissions per capita and cumulative emissions per capita, the figures for countries like China and India are dramatically lower than that for the U.S. Again, as Hansen notes, this means that “The United States therefore has an outsized responsibility for human-made climate change.”
All of this is very important to keep in mind as the Glasgow Conference unfolds, with Biden on the world stage—seeking to exercise "climate leadership" while evading the full nature and scope of the historic responsibility of the U.S., with no real solutions or commensurate emissions cuts, but with a whole PR offensive, including potentially against China. The U.S. claim of “climate leadership” is absurd, ridiculous, and frankly, criminal—though true in one critical aspect, as the main cause of the climate crisis and the main obstacle against its solution.