"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, December 11, 2009

Email from Bolivia

Not someone in Bolivia. I got an email from Bolivia itself. Someone claiming to represent the "Plurinational State of Bolivia" sends the following:

Bolivia responds to US on climate debt: "If you break it, you buy it."

In response to the US chief negotiator Todd Stern's rejection of paying it's climate debt - the principle of polluter pays -- Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations said the following:

"Admitting responsibility for the climate crisis without taking necessary actions to address it is like someone burning your house and then refusing to pay for it. Even if the fire was not started on purpose, the industrialised countries, through their inaction, have continued to add fuel to the fire. As a result they have used up two thirds of the atmospheric space, depriving us of the necessary space for our development and provoking a climate crisis of huge proportions.

"It is entirely unjustifiable that countries like Bolivia are now forced to pay for the crisis. This creates a huge draw on our limited resources to protect our people from a crisis created by the rich and their over-consumption.

"In Bolivia we are facing a crisis we had no role in causing. Our glaciers dwindle, droughts become ever more common, and water supplies are drying up. Who should address this? To us it seems only right that the polluter should pay, and not the poor."

"We are not assigning guilt, merely responsibility. As they say in the US, if you break it, you buy it."

Background: Todd Stern in a press conference on 10 December said: "We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations - I just categorically reject that."
As usual, I violate journalistic protocol by failing to mangle the press release and then pass it along as my own work. If a press release is interesting, I think the press just ought to print it.

It certainly seems plausible that this is the position of Bolivia, though I have no way of determining whether I'm being spoofed.

This time I'm going to comment, though.

In this case I agree with neither the claimed position of Bolivia nor that of the US.

The US should not have to take responsibility for past emissions in the sense of reparations before the date it became clear that these were problematic. Nations should be held culpable only for those emissions which exceed those which reasonably might have been expected after the problem became internationally recognized. Fortunately, we have a date and an emissions scenario.

The fractional culpability of each nation could well be argued to be the ratio between the excess of their emissions over those negotiated at the Kyoto protocol to the total of historical emissions. In the case of the most "developed" nations this quantity will not be insignificant, but it will be much less than our total emissions.


Brian said...

I'm generally supportive of your idea, but not sure about your particular solution. First, Kyoto didn't limit developing countries, so what's their responsibility? Second, it somewhat supports the idea of each nation ratcheting back from historic levels, which I disagree with (I think per-capita emission limits, with international trading, are better).

Third, Kyoto happened long after we knew emitting CO2 was a problem. I'd set the date of national responsibility much earlier. Either 1992 and Rio Convention, or 1988 when warming was first argued to be happening already, or sometime in the 1960s or 1970s when scientists put the world on notice that it may happen in the future, so emissions occurring afterwards were done with advertence to the potential danger.

Michael Tobis said...

The responsibility of less developed countries needs to be negotiated going forward.

Essentially there was a 1992 political consensus, which, had it been followed, would have left us in much less of a quandary today.

Everyone, with as far as I know the a few exceptions among the European countries, willfully ignored these limits and is negligent to exactly the extent that those limits were violated.

Going forward is another matter.But one crazy idea per posting, I always say.

Ian said...

This sort of climate debt concept got into the negotiating process pre-Kyoto, known as the Brazilian Proposal: target reductions should be in proportion to historical responsibility.

There were a bunch of studies, auspiced by SBSTA, mainly published with Michel den Elzen as lead author.
How far you look back brings in lots of issues: quality of old data, and does responsibility for a colony rest with a former colony or the colonial power, etc etc.

For the issue of knowing it was happening, 1996 IPCC report "discernable human influence" seems a sounder date than 1988 (Hansen testimony?)

Ian Enting

Anonymous said...

I like the frame of how you assign culpability, but I wonder whether the Kyoto protocol is a good baseline. It is already a very watered down version of what was known to be necessary back then.

Why not take one of the early IPCC scenarios that was deemed a scientifically defensible way to reduce emissions enough to avoid dangerous climate change? That will certainly also have all kinds of issues, of course.

Holland, and probably more countries in the EU, will probably meet its Kyoto targets because of the financial crisis. Not that they've done much really, and as soon as the crisis fades away, emissions will soar again. Even though I'm Dutch,it doesn't feel quite fair that Holland wouldn't have any extra responsibility for its historic emissions. Long after it became scientifically accepted that there would be a climate problem, we continued BAU (and still do, mostly).


Vinny Burgoo said...

According to the World Resources Institute's Climate Analysis Indicator Tool, Bolivia's per capita GHG emissions were only slightly smaller than the US's in 2005, the most recent year for which it has national estimates for emissions due to land-use change.

Ranking, Country, CO2e per person:
US, 11, 23.5 tonnes
Bolivia, 12, 22.0 tonnes

The estimates include a range of GHGs plus land-use change and bunker-fuel emissions.

It's not a flash in the pan, either. In 2000, the US was ranked 10th and Bolivia 11th; in 1995, 11th and 12th again.

Other developing countries would be similarly embarrassed by any attempt to obtain reparations based on recent emissions. (Kyoto wouldn't work as a basis for this. Firstly, all countries need a baseline, not just rich ones. Second, Kyoto's targets weren't equitable; they were the product of horse-trading and gesture politics and were in no sense scientific or objective.)

Jill said...

Given the loss of glacier mass in the Cordillera Real of Bolivia, this has real economic consequences today for Bolivia.
Zongo Glacier

Unknown said...

Vinny has a decent point but the metric for emission...um...reparations should be CO2 ppmv. So if we go back to preindustrial 285 ppmv, the burden is one thing. If we go back to 350, that is another.

Of course you have data unreliability in 1785 and we'll have to study it more and some countries will want to hide the decline and who handles the FOI requests and all that.



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