Taking Responsibility: Why the United States Must Lead the World in Reducing Global Warming Pollution

Dec 06, 2007

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, applying the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” specified that developed nations should be obligated to make greenhouse gas reductions before less-polluting developing nations. Fairness decreed that developed countries—responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions— should have the responsibility for developing the technological solutions needed to reduce them. Developing nations would thus have time to grow their economies, putting them in a better position to more quickly apply the technological solutions devised in the interim. This principle was upheld by the United States Senate, which ratified the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and has been a cornerstone of subsequent international agreements on climate change.

Unfortunately, some developed countries have begun arguing that “differentiated responsibilities” no longer apply due to the rapid emissions increases by developing countries. They contend that binding emissions reduction goals must be undertaken by developed and developing countries alike. This argument may jeopardize efforts to create a framework for a new international agreement to stabilize the climate after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

Greenhouse gases emitted since the 1750s are already having demonstrably harmful effects on human welfare. Because they are long-lived, the accumulated gases will continue to push global temperatures up, almost reaching the 2°C (3.6° F) threshold that many scientists consider the dividing line between severe and truly catastrophic climate change.

The welfare of hundreds of millions, and possibly billions of people hangs in the balance. By mid-century, more than a billion people will face food and water shortages, including 600 million in Africa alone.

Weather extremes, food and water scarcity, and climate-related public health threats are projected to displace between 150 million and 1 billion people.

World leaders are beginning work on a new treaty for reducing greenhouse gases. This report aims to provide perspective on who bears first responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also examines commitments made by developed and developing nations, and individual U.S. states, to reduce emissions. 

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the main Pew Campaign on Global Warming page.

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