American Lifestyle, American Emissions

American Lifestyle, American Emissions
Photo: Dead Air, Creative Commons, Flickr
Reports from reputable scientific groups like the Global Carbon Project of Australia indicate the rise in global carbon dioxide emissions last year exceeded even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s (IPCC) predictions. This is pretty alarming, considering the IPCC is far from optimistic.

These emissions were 2.9 percent higher in 2007 than in 2006, for a total of almost eight and one-half gigatons (or more than 187,000 pounds) of human-created emissions, mostly carbon dioxide but also nitrous oxide and even methane.

The interesting thing about methane is that, as the planet warms and Arctic ice melts, millions more tons of methane are released from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, where this extremely potent greenhouse gas has effectively been trapped for millennia by ice cover. This new source of methane, triggered by rising, man-made releases of all global warming emissions, threatens to create a negative feedback loop and a global-warming tipping point, which NASA climate scientist James Hansen pinpoints at 6 degrees (Celsius).

If we have already reached a higher-than-anticipated level of emissions, how long will it be before we unexpectedly reach the 6-degree tipping point? Hansen says, "a while," and estimates the full effects of such warming won’t occur until the end of the century. But reputable scientists have been wrong before, as witness the rise in emissions, and 6 degrees may arrive sooner than we anticipate. In fact, according to the IPCC, the new emission’s figures could translate into an 11-degree rise by the end of century, which means 6 degrees is just around the corner.

Where are the increased emissions coming from? From rapidly industrializing countries like China, India and Brazil. Emissions in industrialized nations like the U.S., the EU and Canada have already tapered off, rising only slightly from 1990 levels.

This so-called "third world" may now be the problem, but it is unlikely to produce a solution anytime soon, as these emerging economies struggle to bring their standard of living closer to par with the West. Indeed, why should these economies curb their emissions on our behalf? Do their people deserve less?

The people of China and India, whose emissions now account for more than half of human-generated emissions like carbon dioxide, don’t think so. The fact that emissions in this new millennium are now rising four times faster than in the 90s does nothing to blunt their insistence on having some, if not all, of the luxuries the West has taught them to crave.

In China, where a new middle-class sees food consisting of more than rice and a few vegetables – and luxury consisting of more than a new cooking pot or homemade shoes, this new-found taste of what life can be like frames the basis for a rough-and-ready economic boom not unlike the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Things are good and getting better, at least for some. Children who used to work alongside their parents just to provide food for the family now have the luxury of education. The old and the sick, once given opium and good wishes for a speedy death, now have health care.

The Chinese now contribute more than 60 percent of all global warming emissions, but this does not inspire them to give up their unfamiliar but welcome ‘fat choy’ (prosperity), as exemplified in new fitness centers (their parents exercised in rice paddies), a network of new subway lines thanks to the Olympics, and former commuters driving hatchbacks to malls to shop for the latest Gucci and Bill Blass knockoffs.

Clearly, we can’t all have it all if the earth is to survive. What is the solution? The current economic meltdown in the U.S. may provide part of the answer. As Western economies shrink and recession looms, it may provide an opportunity for more equitable wealth distribution elsewhere. The rich in the U.S. may suffer a little, the poor much more, but even the poorest in America have more than their counterparts in emerging economies. A recession will diminish global disparity and provide a sort of enforced parity.

As one British redditor noted, any sympathy for America’s troubles is largely diluted by a sense that Wall Street’s failure is a sort of long-overdue karma for the American people, who have for the most part lived well beyond their means for far too long and are now being called upon to pay for the party. That the poor and middle class will pay the biggest part of the bill is an inescapable, historical model that made lead to a demand for greater economic equality. Revolution is not impossible if circumstances become dire.

This, too, will benefit the world, as future generations use the idea of America (an ideal that began with the Magna Carta and culminated in the Constitution) to reform their governments for the benefit of the many against the interests of a wealthy and powerful few.

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