“Eventually we all have to accept full and total responsibility for our actions, everything we have done, and have not done.”
Hubert Selby Jr.
“Integrity has no need of rules.”
When I was a child, my family spent a few weeks each summer at our cabin in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. If you’re familiar with that part of the world, you’ll know it rains a lot. Like, really a lot. If you’re not familiar with that part of the world, think of England and you have the general idea.
So, while I have a lot of memories of riding my bike in the sunshine and taking long walks down the beach at low tide, saving starfish and watching sea creatures scurry about in tidal pools, I also have a lot of memories of days spent indoors when it was raining too hard to play outside.
Our cabin is small and simple and our time there was (and still is) strictly old school. It didn’t then and still doesn’t today have many modern amenities. No screens to scroll. No TV to numb out to. And definitely no Netflix which hadn’t been invented yet. So, on rainy days spent indoors, we occupied ourselves with board games and books.
Our favourite board game was Monopoly. And like the rain, our games often lasted days. The cabin only had one table large enough to allow adequate space for both the board and for us to tend to our growing or diminishing empires, depending on how the game was playing out. At mealtimes we’d have to very gingerly move the board from the dining table to a safe place nearby, praying our rambunctious dogs and their wayward wagging tails wouldn’t wreak havoc on its composition while we were eating. This required a great deal of both cooperation and coordination. No small feat for my brothers and me.
We learned a lot during our Monopoly marathons. One of those long-lasting lessons was about responsibility for fulfilling obligations and standing by commitments and by the rules we’d all agreed to before we started each game. Because when you land on Park Place, which is stacked in with hotels by your scheming brother, who also owns Board Walk, welp, you’re gonna hafta pay. That’s just how it goes. Because those are the rules.
Even though we knew the rules by heart, at the beginning of each season one of us would read them out loud just to make sure we were all on the same page. And while we often tried to stretch the rules in whatever ways we could think of outside of our Monopoly world, we always stayed true to the rules of the game inside.
That said, sometimes one of us would try to deviate from the rules of the game and attempt to negotiate a way out of their obligations to pay by offering to take another’s place on the dish roster in exchange for a break on the rent or a jailbreak. That was a big deal. Because we didn’t then and still don’t today have a dishwasher in the cabin. And a family of five makes a lot of dishes. Added to that the fact that one of my brothers had a weird cereal eating habit. We’d often find bowls in the most inconvenient places, like under the couch, with no clue how long they’d been there and with spoons stuck to the bowl with congealed milk. It was so gross. Suffice it to say, no one wanted to do the dishes.
Nevertheless, with domination of the board and our imaginary cutthroat world of buying and selling real estate on the line and bragging rights up for grabs, as would-be real estate tycoons, we occasionally, albeit temporarily, forgot about our aversion to chores of any kind. But no matter what we promised to do, no deals could be struck. Because it was against the rules. And before each game we agreed to play by the rules.
So, when one of us would try to negotiate a change in the rules mid-way through the game the others would say:
“No can do McGoo. We agreed on the rules. Rules are rules and you can’t change them in the middle of the game just because they’re inconvenient for you right now.”
So, begrudgingly we would cough up the dough required to pay the rent even if it meant we had to take out a loan from the bank. We’d stay in jail until we pulled the get out of jail free card. We wouldn’t collect $200 until we passed Go. Because [lean in closely, for this is important Dear Reader] we agreed on the rules and then . . .
We followed the rules! And we kept each other accountable if any one of us felt the inclination to deviate from them. Because we had an agreement in place.
Are you picking up what I’m putting down here, Dear Reader? We had an agreement and we followed it! And we had a built-in accountability mechanism. It’s called integrity.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons we learned from our childhood Monopoly marathons recently. Several weeks ago, in a conversation on Loss and Damage finance someone said to me, “the world has moved on”. The implication was that some emerging economies are now larger emitters than they were when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or the Convention as it is known colloquially) and they should therefore be held to account to pay for Loss and Damage alongside those countries recognised as having historical responsibility under the Convention. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this “We’ve moved on” rhetoric. Usually, I just roll my eyes and groan because: seriously? But this time, something sparked in me. It might have been because I was on the very edge of burnout. My nervous system was in revolt and I was a wee bit sensitive. Who knows. Whatever the reason, this time I simply wasn’t having it.
Several years ago I led a paper on the history of Loss and Damage under the Convention. It was my first paper in the peer review and I had something to prove. I dove into the literature chronicling the early years of the global climate regime and met with some folks who were there in person and watched the negotiations that led to the Convention unfold in real time. In my research, I discovered that some developed countries had campaigned for developing countries, particularly India and China, to take on obligations for emission reductions when the Convention was being negotiated in the early 1990s and that intensified during negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol a few years later. My most recent exchange on the theme of broadening the contributor base on Loss and Damage finance got me thinking (almost always a dangerous and time-consuming prospect for myself and often for others too), where were these emerging economies when we first discovered the affect that human activities were having on the global atmosphere? What were developed countries up to?
As far as we know, the potential for the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere to be interfered with was first discovered in 1824 by French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier who discovered that the Earth’s temperature is regulated by the atmosphere trapping radiation or heat. This came to be known as the greenhouse effect. Fourier’s claims were supported in 1838 by another French physicist, Claude Pouilet, who suggested that water and carbon dioxide could be the cause of the phenomenon that Fourier had discovered. However, there was no empirical evidence yet to substantiate this theory.
In 1856 that all changed when a woman called Eunice Newton Foote entered the scene (a woman comes to the rescue!). An American scientist and women’s rights activist, Foote conducted experiments that proved that gases, including hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) increased in temperature when exposed to sunlight. She found that the sun’s rays had the greatest impact on CO2 and concluded that:
“an atmosphere of that gas would give our earth a high temperature.”
Foote’s initial research took place two years before Irish physicist John Tyndall began his experiments and she published her findings three years before Tyndall published his. However, Foote’s seminal findings were uncovered just over a decade ago. Shocker that the discovery of a woman was suppressed, I know. But I digress.
What both Foote and Tyndall discovered is that certain gases both absorb and radiate heat and thus had the potential to increase the temperature of the atmosphere. Tyndall discovered that the reason why gases trap heat is because they absorb long-wave radiation. He concluded that:
“the atmosphere admits of the entrance of solar heat; but checks its exit, and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet".
Note that according to at least one historian, it is unlikely that Tyndall was aware of Foote’s work and that there were also several other scientists working on this issue at the same time.
Where was China in 1856 when Foote’s findings were first published? In the midst of the Second Opium War. The First Opium War took place from 1839 to 1842 between China and Great Britain while the second took place from 1856 to 1860 and saw a weakened China pitted against not just armies from Great Britain but also France. Unsurprisingly, China lost both wars.
The Treaty of Nanking which ended the First Opium War forced China to pay an indemnity to Great Britain and to cede control of the territory of Hong Kong to the British. The Chinese government was also forced to open ports to foreign ships, provide special rights to foreigners operating within its ports and to stand by as the British increased their sales of opium on Chinese soil in the name of free trade which had detrimental impacts on Chinese citizens. Hmmm …. Is it just me or does it seem like the United Kingdom has rather a lot to account for Dear Reader?
What was going on in India in 1856 when empirical evidence of the greenhouse effect first came to light?
In 1856 most of India was controlled by the East India Company which effectively governed India from 1757 to 1858 and was itself controlled by the British government. By 1856 all of the Indian sub-continent up to the Himalayas including much of Burma, was ruled by the East India Company and thereby under the control of the so-called British Empire.
The de-industrialisation of India began in the 1700s when India was first colonised by the British through the East India Company. This was accomplished through protectionist policies that favoured the British economy such as restricting the trade of Indian goods in Britain while exposing Indian markets to British goods and services without tariffs or quotas. This had significant implications for the GDP of India. In 1600 the GDP of India was 60 percent that of Britain but by 1871 after over a century of colonisation, the GDP of India was a mere 15 percent of that of Great Britain. During British rule, India became a net exporter of raw materials and a net importer of finished goods which helped fuel Britain's economic development and its capacity to continue its exploits.
Meanwhile the United States a few centuries into the colonisation of both the territory and the lives of Indigenous peoples following the invasion by Europeans. Between the 16th and 19th centuries populations of Indigenous peoples on the land now known as the United States were decimated by epidemic diseases brought by Europeans and violence, war, forced displacement, decimation of food forces and destroying ways of life at the hands of Europeans and later Americans and the American government. The total number of Indigenous peoples’ lives taken from 1492 to 1900 – a period that has been referred to as the Indigenous Holocaust– has been estimated at 13 million. While these figures are truly horrifying, they cannot possibly capture the true magnitude of the devastation to Indigenous peoples, the atrocities committed against them, the legacy of which continues to this day. And certainly not only in the United States. Canada and Australia - among many other countries - also have a lot to account for. Both in their historical and in their current treatment of Indigenous peoples, the first and rightful stewards of the land these countries are built on.
Meanwhile, in 1856 there were still 15 states in which slavery was not only legal, but flourishing. Though the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807 and the United States passed a law stating that no new slaves would be permitted into its territory that same year, slavery continued to provide the basis of labour in the sugar among other industries in both the United States and Great Britain. The American Civil War which would eventually end slavery – at least on paper - was still five years off. Before the slave trade was abolished 10 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean, 600,000 to the United States. Of the first 12 presidents of the United States, eight were slave owners. Over a century and a half later, the legacy of slavery continues not only in the United States, but worldwide, most notably in Africa. The social construction of race, which enabled slavery by creating an “other” based on skin colour, has influenced both climate change and climate policy..
On that very sobering note, we return to the evolution of the science of climate change . . .
In the 1880s a Swedish scientist called Svante Arrhenius began to connect the discoveries of Foote, Tyndall and those that came before them, with the intensive activities of the industrial era which were by then well underway in Europe. Arrhenius wondered: given that these activities were emitting CO2, could they be influencing the temperature of the Earth? Through tedious calculations he estimated that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere could increase the temperature of the surface of the Earth by between 11°F and 14.5°F. He published his findings in1896 which are not far off of what current models predict (an increase of between 5.5° to 9 F°).
Arrhenius’s work was largely ignored as it was widely believed – including by many scientists – that human activities could not possibly impact the temperature of the Earth with its vast atmosphere. In 1931 the trail was picked up once again by American physicist E.O. Hurlburt who estimated that doubling CO2 would lead to 4°C warming. Seven years later, in 1938, English engineer Guy Callendar published a paper which suggested that the temperature of the global atmosphere had already increased by 0.005°C a year over the previous 50 years and he projected a cumulative increase of 0.39°C by the end of the 20th century.
Where was China in 1938 when it was first elucidated that the Earth’s atmosphere was already warming?
In the midst of another war: this time with Japan. In 1931 Japan occupied Manchuria in what is now China’s Northeast and after having done so, established the puppet state of Manchukuo. Japan invested heavily in developing industrial production in the region and expanding the territory under its control to include parts of Northern China near Beiping (now Beijing) and Tianjin. The invasion of these cities inspired a movement against Japan’s occupation which prompted the communist and nationalists to abandon their civil war in 1937 and form the United Front against Japan. By 1937 Japan had control of most of the ports, the majority of the railways and many major cities in China. This eventually led to the Sino Japanese War, which lasted from 1937 to 1945 when the Second World War ended.
Japan’s armies were stronger and better prepared than the then consolidated Chinese army and by late 1937 had driven the Chinese armies out of Shanghai and Nanking, the then capital of China. During a six-week period spanning from December 1937 to January 1938 the Japanese military killed as many as 300,000 civilians and committed mass atrocities including an estimated 80,000 counts of rape in Nanking. The Chinese capital was then moved to Hankow which was taken by the Japanese in October of 1938. In the months that followed China’s air force was all but decimated and cities throughout China were bombed at will. After the Japanese surrender in September of 1945 the fragile peace between the nationalists and the communists ended. The nationalists had suffered under the pressure of seven years of war while the communists had grown strong, leading to their eventual political descent.
Where was India in 1938 when the evidence of the impact of human activity on the temperature of the global atmosphere was first revealed?
In the midst of a campaign to end colonial rule, led by Mohandas Gandhi (who later came to be known by the honorific term Mahatma).
In 1858 the British Crown assumed direct rule of India, marking the beginning of the period known as the British Raj, lasting until 1947 when India became independent. During this period a total of 196 acts concerning the governance of India were passed by the British Parliament. When Britain passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919, which enabled the police to arrest anyone without a warrant, or even a reason, Gandhi encouraged Indians to protest. When British officers opened fire on unarmed civilians in peaceful protest in Delhi on March 30th of that year, riots ensued. The following month Gandhi was arrested entering Delhi and the rioting intensified. On April 13th hundreds were killed when British officers opened fire on protestors including women and children in Amritsar. After the massacre Gandhi decided to focus on independence.
In 1931, Gandhi, who was by then leading the Indian National Congress, began to negotiate with the British for constitutional reforms to bring the colonisation by the British to an end. These negotiations were interrupted by the Second World War. Gandhi vehemently opposed India’s participation. The British government arrested him and several other members of the India National Congress and over 1000 Indians who participated in the protests lost their lives. India gained independence on August 15th, 1947 from Britain. The territory was partitioned into two states: India and Pakistan. The partition of India left 15 million people homeless and cost 1 million people their lives.
On another sobering note, back to the history of climate science . . .
After Guy Callendar published his findings in 1938, research continued to better understand the influence of CO2 on the temperature of the global atmosphere. In 1953 Canadian physicist Gilbert Plass told an audience of scientists that:
“The large increase in industrial activity during the present century is discharging so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the average temperature is rising at the rate of 1.5°F per century.”
Plass projected that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase temperatures by between 3 and 4°C. In 1958 Charles David Keeling, an American scientist, measured CO2 levels at a monitoring station in Mauna Loa, Hawaii and determined that levels were rising. In 1965 a prominent group of scientists declared that:
"By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 . . . may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate."
In 1967 the first simulation of the Earth’s climate system was developed by Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald. The model projected that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase the global average temperature by 2°C. Research on climate change continued through the 1970s including the identification of the effect of other so-called greenhouse gases on the temperature of the atmosphere including methane and the contributions of a range of human activities to the rising levels of these gases in the atmosphere including deforestation.
"The effects of CO2 may not be detectable until around the turn of the century. By this time, atmospheric CO2 concentration will probably have become sufficiently high (and we will be committed to further increases) that a climatic change significantly larger than any which has occurred in the past century could be unavoidable."
Finally in the 1980s after more than a century of scientific study, some political progress to translate it into action (or at least words). On June 10th and 11th of 1986 Senator John H. Chafee convened hearings of the US. Senate Committee and the Environment and Public Worlds entitled, “Ozone Depletion, the Greenhouse Effect, and Climate Change.” In his statement Chafee said:
“This is not a matter of Chicken Little telling us the sky is falling. The scientific evidence . . . is telling us we have a problem, a serious problem.
Al Gore who was a newly elected senator at the time said:
“There is no longer any significant difference of opinion within the scientific community about the fact that the greenhouse effect is real and already occurring.”
I mean I hope not, given the hearing was convened over 50 years after it was established that the global average temperature was already rising. Hello? Alarm bells sounding anyone?
And then two years later James Hansen, a climatologist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, famously testified before a hearing of the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource on June 23rd of 1988 that:
“My principal conclusions are: (1) the earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements, (2) the global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect and (3) our computer climate simulations indicate that the greenhouse effect is already large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heat waves . . . “
Hansen’s testimony was widely profiled in the media including in the New York Times. So, it’s pretty tough to argue that this information wasn’t widely available. Of course we know now that behind the movement to deny climate science were heavily funded and well-resourced lobbies convincing folks that this was all malarky and they shouldn’t pay it any heed. But folks who had both access to newspapers and common sense would have known that this was not the case, politicians among them. Senator Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado, who presided over the hearing at which Hansen testified said:
“As I read it, the scientific evidence is compelling: the global climate is changing as the earth's atmosphere gets warmer. Now, the Congress must begin to consider how we are going to slow or halt that warming trend and how we are going to cope with the changes that may already be inevitable.''
In response, the President of the United States, George Bush (senior) vowed to use the power of the White House to fight the greenhouse effect.
The year 1988 was an important year for translating knowledge into action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988 and the UN General Assembly recognised that climate change is a threat to human life on planet Earth along with the urgency of addressing its root causes. The World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Program were tasked with supporting negotiations to establish an international treaty on climate change and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee was established. The same year negotiations began in 1990, the First Assessment Report of the IPCC was released which reported, with a high likelihood, that the global average temperature had already increased by up to 0.6°C. Two years later, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established, entering into force in the spring of 1994.
Where were India and China in 1992 when the Convention was established?
In 1992 the GDP per capita of China was 367 USD and it was responsible for 5.71 percent of historical emissions (measured in cumulative emissions from 1750). In 1992 the GDP per capita of India was 1301 USD and it was responsible for 1.44 percent of historical emissions. By contrast, the GDP per capita of the United States in 1992 was 25,390 USD and it was responsible for 30.38 percent of historical emissions.
As of 2020, China is the largest emitter annually with 24.2 percent of global emissions in 2020 while India is the third largest emitter with 6.76 percent of global emissions. However, as of 2021 the United States remains the largest historical emitter, responsible for 24.29 of historical emissions (from 1750 to 2021). The European Union (which to be fair is a bloc of 27 countries) is responsible for 16.88 of historical emissions, China and India are responsible for 14.36 and 3.29 of historical emissions respectively. Note that China still lags far behind the United States in historical emissions per capita. Data from 2018 indicates that the United States was by then responsible for 18.16 percent of historical emissions, the European Union 7.57 percent, China 8.47 percent and India 2.52 percent.
According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report the global average surface temperature was 1.09℃ (0.95 to 1.20) higher in the period 2011 to 2020 than the period 1850 to 1900. The likely range of the increase in global average surface temperature that is due to human activities is 0.8℃ to 1.3℃. The report finds that it is likely that a mix of greenhouse gases contributed to this change through a warming of between 1℃ and 2℃ while other human activities (primarily the use of aerosols) contributed by cooling the global surface temperature by up to 0.8℃.
The reason why many scientists didn’t believe that the Earth’s temperature could be altered when evidence first came to light in the 1930s, certainly to the degree it has, is because it takes a lot of energy to do so and that requires the emission of huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Climate scientists at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explain that:
“Given the tremendous size and heat capacity of the global oceans, it takes a massive amount of heat energy to raise Earth’s average yearly surface temperature even a small amount. The roughly 2-degree Fahrenheit (1 degrees Celsius) increase in global average surface temperature that has occurred since the pre-industrial era (1880-1900) might seem small, but it means a significant increase in accumulated heat. That extra heat is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and changing habitat ranges for plants and animals—expanding some and shrinking others”.
Facts are facts Dear Reader. And while developed countries have tried to stretch the rules and get out of their obligations to pay for loss and damage, the fact remains that obligations are inscribed in the Convention, the foundational treaty under which both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement sit. The Convention acknowledges historical responsibility and establishes the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Those still apply to the Paris Agreement. We can think of the Convention as the parent and the Paris Agreement as the child. The parent sets the rules, provides a container to keep the child safe, and the child is expected to follow those rules for their own well-being. So, you see Dear Reader, we most certainly haven’t moved on from the principles of the Convention no matter how developed countries might argue otherwise.
When I think of the way that developed countries are trying to get out of their obligations in the global climate regime it makes me think of a toddler having a tantrum because they perceive that their sibling or another child has something they don’t or is getting away with something they aren’t. Stomping their feet and lamenting: “It’s not fair”. But is it fair that developed countries have become wealthy by exploiting poorer countries, culminating in a power imbalance and economic disparities that continues today? Definitely not. Is it fair that developing countries are most affected by, yet least responsible for, climate change. Heck, no. Is it fair that they are burdened with the cost of addressing loss and damage that results from the warming of the global atmosphere? Absolutely not.
This blog is not about shaming and blaming. It’s about calling out hypocrisy and calling on developed countries to not just acknowledge past wrongdoings but to right them and in doing so, to step up to their obligations. The fact is that we had the knowledge that our activities were already warming the global atmosphere almost a century ago [Note if you’d like to do a deeper dive on that history you can check out an essay by climate science historian Spencer Weart here.] What’s more, it’s important to acknowledge that historical emissions enabled developed or wealthier economies to, well, become wealthy, and in doing so, they kept poorer countries poor. We can’t change the past, but we can certainly create a better future. To do so we will need to acknowledge where we went wrong, bring to light the things we don’t want to see, reckon with them and then make them right to chart a new course. And part of that process is for developed countries to mobilise finance for addressing loss and damage at the scale of the needs and ensuring adequate finance for adaptation to minimise loss and damage and mitigation to avert loss and damage in developing countries. While simultaneously scaling up mitigation action significantly to limit warming to below 1.5℃ (which is still possible).
Have you ever gone into a shop of precious things and spied a sign that says, “You break it, you buy it” and immediately started moving slower, more deliberately and touching things oh so gently if at all? I have. I am ever so slightly (read: very) accident prone. And I spent several years as a poor student. I literally couldn’t afford to “buy it” so I definitely did my utmost not to “break it”. Finance for loss and damage is exactly like that. Developed countries quite literally broke the global climate system and that led to escalating loss and damage which have the most profound impacts on developing countries who are least responsible for its root cause - emitting greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere. And now they need to pay for the loss and damage that their actions caused. It’s literally that simple. Not easy perhaps, but simple, definitely. Not to mention the fact that developing countries are more vulnerable because of a legacy of colonialism, which enabled developed countries to become richer through the extraction of raw materials, appropriation of land and theft of human lives. Colonialism perpetuates today in power imbalances and economic disparities between global North and South among other things.
The saddest thing of all is that we knew better. We have known better for over 100 years. We could have avoided loss and damage. In fact the overarching objective of the Convention is essentially to do so. We’re so far beyond that now that we’ve developed disaster fatigue. Every day we see the reality of climate change unfolding in the news, as we scroll through our social media feeds and before our own eyes in real time. Because the reality is that climate change becomes more difficult to deny when it’s on your very own doorstep. But make no mistake: we are not in the same boat. The delayed action which brought climate change impacts to their doorstep does not give developed countries an “out” for providing finance to address climate change in developing countries.
This didn’t have to be our reality. The fact is that we had enough lead time to turn this ship around a long time ago to chart the course for a different future. Recently James Hansen, who is now in his 80s said of our failure to act on the information we've had for so long:
“We are damned fools . . . We are headed wittingly into the new reality. We knew this was coming.”
So, in summary, we haven’t moved on. And the reason why is because we haven’t done the work we need to do before we can move on. Once developed countries fully step into their role as bold leaders (not managers maintaining the status quo), fulfil their obligations and commitments, then perhaps we will move on. We can create a better world. It’s not too late for that. But it requires leadership. Leaders with integrity who follow through with what they say they’ll do. Because rules are rules. Developed countries agreed to them in 1992 and they need to follow them in 2023 to step up to pay for the loss and damage that could have been avoided had they taken action when they scientists first began ringing the alarm bells over a century ago.
Erin Roberts is the founder and the Global Lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She will shortly be spending some time at her family’s cabin in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, where she will likely be occupying some rainy fall days playing board games with her family and re-visiting the lessons of her childhood.