The leaders of a reported 156 countries are meeting in Montreal for the next few days to discuss the Kyoto Protocol on climate control. I’m not about to get into the whole global-warming issue, except to suggest that unless you want to be barbecued by the sun in the next 20 years, you should think about doing something about it.
What caught my eye was the list of countries that have not signed on. The fact that the US hasn’t shouldn’t surprise anyone; the nation’s use of midwest coal and its having an oil-company president virtually preclude it from participating in global climate-change efforts until the last lump of coal is fired or the last barrel of oil is extracted. Two names on the list, however, stuck out like accusatory fingers: India and China. They are the two biggest and fastest-growing economies in the world and they haven’t signed on to the climate-control agreement. Obviously that’s a worry because they are also the two most heavily populated countries in the world, which means they have more people potentially capable of producing greenhouse gases.
Now, before we start jumping up and down in fits of environmental self-righteousness, a little perspective is in order. The first thing we have to consider is the leading contributor to greenhouse gases; the second is to look at the situation from that country’s point of view. You know, walk a mile in somebody else’s footwear.
Have you seen many pictures of downtown Beijing or Calcutta or of any of the big cities in mainland China or India? The most striking thing is the lack of personal vehicles with more than two wheels and a one-person power engine. What is the biggest single contributor to carbon-dioxide emissions? The automobile.
There is nothing like a hot, humid summer’s day in a big North American city during morning rush hour to give you an idea of how bad auto-emitted gases can be. The city doesn’t even have to be that big.
I remember working in Toronto, Ontario, in the heart of its downtown 14 years ago. My job started a little earlier in the day than others’, so I would get to watch people follow me in from wherever they started. From the building’s rooftop, while enjoying a smoke and a coffee, I could see the rush-hour traffic accumulate on the expressways and watch as the western sky along the horizon line turned brown. As the sun rose in the east, it would illuminate the fumes rising from the exhaust pipes of the bumper-to-bumper crawling traffic. There’s nothing like a slow, idling engine for spewing out noxious gases. By noon, of course, you couldn’t see the smudge anymore – it had dissipated over the whole city.
My mother still lives in Toronto; she lives right in the city’s heart. She loves the big city. The art galleries, the symphony, the opera, the museums – they are her world. However, I was talking to her on the phone this past summer, and she was having misgivings about living there. She said that walking down the street a block could almost make her sick to her stomach because the exhaust fumes were so bad.
Southern Ontario had one of its worst summers for smog warnings this past year. Our first air-quality warning came as early as April, and this was followed by, during the worst of the heat waves, 23 days in a row of air-quality alerts. In my small city of 116,000, 60 air-quality-related deaths were anticipated. We have no heavy industry, but we are downwind of Toronto and are one of the most humid cities in Canada. It’s a sure-fire combination for bad air.
So when I see a picture of a massive city like Beijing, where the majority of people pedal their way to work, I don’t get quite the massive worry about how much greenhouse gas China contributes to our atmosphere. I’m sure that will change in the future. Economic prosperity leads to the desire for symbols of status, and nothing says status like a car.
India is already experiencing that with Mumabi already reporting more than 300 new car-license requests each month. Given the state of India’s infrastructure, which has old roads not designed for the automobile, it may soon start experiencing the same sort of gridlock that we do in Ontario.
That’s what we need to be planning for, for that day in the not-so-distant future when the world’s largest nations begin to reap material rewards for their economic prowess. This is where we need to start looking at the world from their point of view, which has been shaped by years of being treated as an inferior.
For far too many years, both China and India were subservient to other masters. Both gained their independence in the first half of the 20th century. China became a closed country, retreating behind the veil of communism and pretty much relegating its people to a feudal status. India, on the other hand, received plenty of foreign investment from companies who wanted cheap labor. India’s wake-up call came in 1984, when a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal leaked toxic gases into the environment. As is typical, the company fought tooth and nail against giving any significant compensation to the people who lived in the surrounding area.
Just as India and China finally are starting to build industries and to compete with more established countries, they are being told that they can’t act as we did. We’re changing the rules of the game, so they don’t have the same advantages other economies did during the post-war boom, when Western industries took giant leaps forward. The developing world must see us as hypocrites — after all, we are lecturing them on being environmentally sensitive after our companies raped their lands for many years. Oh fine, they must be thinking, it was okay for you to do whatever was necessary to get your economies up and running, but it isn’t for us. Well, sorry if we don’t like that idea, but we need to put our money into getting businesses started and not worry about anything else.
If, on top of this, China and India see that the US – the world’s biggest economy, the one ever other country must compete against – hasn’t signed on to Kyoto, they figure why should they. And how can they? Without extra money coming in from somewhere, they know they’ll never be able to compete if they have to consider climate control when American companies don’t. This point goes beyond India and China: It’s hard to convince a people desperate to pull themselves out of poverty that they must spend even more money they don’t have on anti-emission devices, filters, and alternative fuels when the US isn’t restricted similarly.
If we are serious about combatting global warming, than we must endeavor to assure the developing world of assistance in achieving the goals established by the Kyoto Accord. We helped put them in the hole they started in; the least we can do is help them climb out without poisoning themselves.