Wed, Aug 09, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Will the world's polluters pay for climate change?

By Peter Singer

I am writing this in New York in early August, when the mayor declared a "heat emergency" to prevent widespread electricity outages from the expected high use of air conditioners. City employees could face criminal charges if they set their thermostats below 25.5 degrees Celsius. Nevertheless, electricity usage has reached near-record levels.

Meanwhile California has emerged from its own record-breaking heat wave. For the US as a whole, the first six months of this year were the hottest in more than a century. Europe is experiencing an unusually hot summer, too. Last month set new records in England and the Netherlands, where weather data go back more than 300 years.

The hot northern summer fits well with the release of An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film featuring former US vice president Al Gore. Using some remarkable graphs, images, and other information, the film makes a compelling case that our carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming, or, at the very least, contributing to it, and that we must urgently address the issue.

Americans tend to talk a lot about morality and justice. But most Americans still fail to realize that their country's refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol, and their business-as-usual approach to greenhouse gas emissions, is a moral failing of the most serious kind. It is already having harmful consequences for others, and the greatest inequity is that it is the rich who are using most of the energy that leads to the emissions that cause climate change, while it is the poor who will bear most of the costs. (To learn what you can do to reduce your own contribution, see

feedback loop

To see the inequity, I merely have to glance up at the air conditioner that is keeping my office bearable. While I've done more than the mayor requested, setting it at 27 degrees Celsius, I'm still part of a feedback loop. I deal with the heat by using more energy, which leads to burning more fossil fuel, putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heating up the planet more. It even happened when I watched An Inconvenient Truth: on a warm evening, the cinema was so chilly that I wished I had brought a jacket.

Heat kills. A heat wave in France in 2003 caused an estimated 35,000 deaths, and a hot spell similar to the one Britain had last month caused more than 2,000 deaths, according to official estimates. Although no particular heat wave can be directly attributed to global warming, it will make such events more frequent.

Moreover, if global warming continues unchecked, the number of deaths that occur when rainfall becomes more erratic, causing both prolonged droughts and severe floods, will dwarf the death toll from hot weather in Europe. More frequent intense hurricanes will kill many more. Melting polar ice will cause rising seas to inundate low-lying fertile delta regions on which hun-dreds of millions of people grow their food. Tropical diseases will spread, killing still more people.

Overwhelmingly, the dead will be those who lack the resources to adapt, to find alternative sources of food, and who do not have access to health care. Even in rich countries, it usually isn't the rich who die in natural disasters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, those who died were the poor in low-lying areas who lacked cars to escape.

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