It's a huge day for climate policy. President Obama is announcing a dramatic new EPA proposal to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. If and when it's implemented, the EPA regulations will be Obama's signature policy in the campaign to reduce America's contribution to climate change.
They also might be Obama's greatest contribution to the fight against global poverty. Climate change is bad for everyone. But it's particularly bad for the world's poorest.
Standard and Poor's, the credit rating company, recently published a report assessing the risk each country faces from climate change. You'll notice the more vulnerable (redder) countries cluster in Asia and Africa, while the better off (greener) countries are almost all in North America or Europe:
The cost to the developing world of unmitigated climate change will be staggering. Assume the globe warms by about four degrees celsius, which is easily possible absent major emissions reductions. Those notorious hippies at the World Bank suggest that this could lead to massive increases in disease, extreme storms, droughts, and flooding. The effects will be so massive, according to the bank's President Jim Kim, that they could roll back "decades of development gains and force tens of more millions of people to live in poverty."
This isn't theoretical: we're already seeing the harm climate change is doing to the global poor. The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are killed by climate change's effects annually — a number that's obviously going to rise significantly as the earth heats up. That's nearly the total death toll of the Syrian civil war, every year. And once again, poor countries are hit by far the hardest:
There are basically two reasons why poor countries have it so rough: geography and poverty. Most of the red countries on the S&P map lie near the equator, where climate change-caused storms, flooding, and droughts will be more intense.
Poverty makes these effects much worse. You'll notice, for instance, that Indonesia is red on the S&P map while Australia, its much wealthier neighbor, is green. Poor countries tend to have more poorly constructed homes, fewer resources for emergency response and relocation after sea level rise, and weaker health care systems ill-equipped to deal with increased rates of tropical disease. Imagine Hurricane Katrina levels of flooding in a city like Dhaka, Bangladesh — home to 15 million people.
Actually, we don't need to imagine: we know from "normal" extreme-weather events that poor countries have it the roughest. From 1980-2007, only 15 percent of hurricanes, typhoons, and the like happened in low-income countries, but 68 percent of people killed by these storms died in poorer nations.
For these reasons, a group of the world's 49 poorest countries are already lobbying wealthier nations — which are responsible for a disproportionate share of carbon emissions — to commit to tighter emissions standards at a 2015 summit in Paris.
Obama's new carbon regulations are America's contribution to that effort. 17 percent of the world's emissions come from the United States. The new regulations are designed to cut that number significantly, ideally reducing the United States to 17 percent below its 2005 target.
This will cost the United States some money, though it's not clear how much. One way to think about this is a transfer payment: America, a rich country, is spending to try to save the world's poorest from the worst effects of climate change.
Again, warming is pretty bad for everyone, so the regulations aren't totally altruistic. But the world's poorest will be hurt the most, and they're the people who can least afford to be hurt. The global gap in wealth is unimaginably large. To put it in some perspective: the poorest five percent of Americans have higher per-capita incomes than 68 percent of the world.
So far, wealthy countries have done a pretty poor job addressing climate change as an inequality issue. Rich countries promised $100 billion per year to help poor countries deal with the consequences of global warming, but most of that money hasn't materialized. This is doubly infuriating for leaders of poor countries, as the global rich got that way by using technologies that created the climate crisis in the first place. The same carbon-powered economic growth fuelled Western colonialism.
EPA climate regulations won't, on their own, replace that kind of coordinated effort to tackle climate change's effect on the poor. But it's impossible to understand Obama's climate regulations absent the global context. The real goal of any climate regulation is to effect global change; while no one country can significantly slow climate change on its own, regulations in one country can encourage global efforts.
The New York Times reports that Chinese and European policymakers are watching the regulations closely, seeing them as a barometer for how committed the United States is to a truly global campaign. In the past, US support has been critical to the success of global environmental treaties.
Obama, then, is attempting to use an EPA regulation to build global support for a campaign against one of the most important causes of global poverty and inequality. That's the big-picture story behind today's move. The biggest question going forward is whether it'll work.