Global Warming and co2 Emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the Past

Part II of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'”

The periodic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and the World Meteorological (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN which monitors changes in weather and climate and assesses the behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, have charted the impending disaster in increasingly ominous language. Extreme climate events, far in excess of the occasional hurricane or drought that made it to the world news twenty years ago, have been aplenty: raging fires in Australia and the United States; record flooding in Europe, Africa, and Kerala; droughts in Argentina, Uruguay, and Afghanistan; and heat waves in London, Paris, and, to add a new gloss to the idea of the surreal, Greenland.  The scenes of devastation are writ large in the language of apocalypse.  “Australia’s hellish fire season has eased,” states a recent article in the New York Times, “but its people are facing more than a single crisis.”  The word “hellish” alerts us to the extraordinarily trying times that Australians have already experienced and will doubtless have to go through before their ordeal is over—if it is over:  the cycle of “drought, fire, deluge” is repeated with intensifying effect.


Perhaps the most iconic image from the wildfires in Australia 2020: A kangaroo rushes past a burning house amid apocalyptic scenes in Conjola, New South Wales. Picture: Matthew Abbott / New York Times / Redux / eyevine)

The dire predictions from merely five years ago now seem considerably understated, and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made something of a concerted effort not to appear alarmist when, just three months ago on the eve of the UN’s annual climate conference, he declared that “climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs.”  But is such language calculated to stir the attention, let alone passions, of those caught up in wars, fleeing persecution, fighting drug addiction, enfeebled by deadly diseases, or struggling to find food?  Are the mortal dangers of climate change in the future, even the imminent future, likely to trouble those who face death, destitution, and pestilence in the here and now?  The panic over the expansion of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which thus far has afflicted some 100,000 people, accounting for something like 3,250 fatalities, has wiped nearly everything else off the news in recent days.  Who is going to be thinking of climate change if the toll from the virus multiplies two-fold, ten-fold, and even twenty-fold in the weeks ahead? Scientific researchers as far back as 2009—and, let there be no mistake, the problem of climate change has increased dramatically in the decade since—had declared that global warming was accounting for 150,000 deaths annually around the world, and in India alone 1.24 million died from toxic air pollution in one single year, 2017.  The Lancet study of pollution in Delhi found that of this figure, 480,000 died from “household pollution related to the use of solid cooking fuels”, and another 670,000 from “air pollution in the wider environment.”  The indisputable fact, though it does not appear as fact to many, is that the toll from global warming already runs into the few millions globally every year.

Yet, even as the grounds for thinking of why a “climate emergency” is called for seem unimpeachably clear, why is it that we should have some misgivings about the use of this phrase? The world has often been inclined to follow the example set by the Americans, who have a penchant for putting everything on a war footing and cannot resist the military metaphor. When there’s an emergency—innocents taken hostage, or, as in the movies, a plot to poison a city’s water supply or wipe out a people by waging a biological attack—the Americans come out with guns blazing. The world has seen the “war on drugs” played out first in American cities, now in a great many places around the world.  It was largely unsuccessful when first initiated in the US and has, in its most recent incarnation in the Philippines, led to wholly indiscriminate and large-scale mafia-style killings by the armed forces of the state, usually of ordinary civilians.  Then came the emergency in the wake of the September 11, 2001 bombings and suddenly the world awoke to the “war on terror”—another colossal failure, judging not from the absence of large-scale terrorist attacks on American soil by “foreign” elements, but from the havoc that this American-initiated war created over large swathes of the Middle East and Afghanistan.  It’s not merely that victory in these wars, whatever that may mean, is unachievable:  what would it mean for the noun “terror” to disappear from the English language, I wonder.  Were the framers of the idea of the “war on terror”, whose war of terror has chalked up all kinds of “collateral damage”, even familiar with the work that a preposition does in the English language?

The “climate emergency”, let us put it this way, is nothing but the call to wage a “war on climate change”, and it has every prospect of producing the same dismal outcomes.  But the idea of “climate emergency” is yet more ominous than the emergencies to which I have adverted and it is potentially fraught with genocidal implications, and not only because there is likely no place in the world which is immune from climate change.  When we consider who the victims of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” have been, “climate emergency” begins to emit the stench that arises when the wealthy purport to act in the name of humanity. The world’s largest per capita carbon dioxide emitters are the major oil producing countries, mainly in West Asia:  Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.  But these countries have very small populations, and their total emissions are a fraction of the total emissions of countries such as the United States, China, India, and Japan.  Through most of the 19th century, the United Kingdom had the lion’s share of the world’s CO2 emissions, as much as nearly 50% at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  The second half of the 19th would begin to see the emergence of Germany as an imperial power and, even more pointedly, the westward expansion and industrialization of the United States.  By 1887, Britain accounted for about 30% of the global CO2 emissions, and the United States and Germany 28.54% and 15.82%, respectively.  Just three years later, the United States had assumed its position as the world’s leading emitter of CO2, accounting for almost 31% of the world’s total just as Britain’s share would decline to 27.18%, and for well over a century the United States would remain the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1857.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser.

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1893.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 1946.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser


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Annual CO2 emissions, globally, in 2017.  Source: Copyright: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

At the end of the war, with Germany and Japan in ruins, and Britain triumphant in spirit but gravely hobbled by the decimation of its cities, the United States lorded it over the world in a manner unprecedented in history.  That the United States was at this time the juggernaut of the world’s industrial production may be gauged by the unusual fact that it was singlehandedly responsible for 54.35% of the world’s CO2 emissions. The American flag did not have to fly over the world as did the Union Jack for the United States to have replaced the United Kingdom and even have surpassed Britain at the height of its power.  Indeed, the United States would have been poised, if the data from 1900-1945 is taken into consideration, to reach the milestone it did at the end of the war by the late 1920s had not the Great Depression shuttered down many manufacturing units and led to a substantial decline in household consumption levels. It would not be until 2006 that China’s emissions would exceed those of the United States, and today China’s emissions are double those of the United States; however, viewed in relation to per capita, China is still responsible for less than half of the CO2 emissions of the United States.  Meanwhile, even if for the once colonized subjects of the global South nostalgia for Europe is not a whit too easy, the declining per capita emissions in countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, in some cases to a very significant degree, suggest that nations are not always self-aggrandizing but may even veer towards responsibility.

(to be continued)

For Part I, “Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019”, click here.


2 thoughts on “Global Warming and co2 Emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the Past

  1. As I read the list of countries that have begun to take responsibility before us, and change their ways for the sake of global warming, it left me with a thought that I had not acknowledged before. The main thought this article left me with is if America is reaching a point where we no longer will be the example the rest of the world follows. Every country has their downfalls, but I wonder if there is going to be an impending moment when enough countries will pass us in the categories of morality, responsibility, and logic, that they take charge and we become the one that follows their lead?


  2. Hello Professor,

    It is evident that the United States is taking the back seat on an issue that it should be front and center on. As you mentioned, China is emmiting double what the United States is, yet hasn’t even reached half of what the United States has emitted. Looking at the Climate Emergency that is facing the world, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the major powers of the world do not care about the climate, and would rather focus on short-term issues that they deal with domestically. This type of enhanced ignorance cannot be sustained any longer, it just cannot. There is coming a point of no return, and I ask, what is the final straw? What needs to happen in order for the world’s lead polluters to acknowledge their mistakes and work towards real solutions, not just agreements that they will back out of years later. As you mentioned, the United States is so quick to go “guns blazing” to most things, but in regards to climate change, they are a shadow of what they proclaim to be.


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