Who Bears the Blame for the Climate Crisis?

Historical context is important when it comes to tackling climate injustice.

Whitehall, London

Scott E Barbour/Getty Images

Playing the blame game is natural. When things go wrong, as they undoubtedly have done in terms of human impact on Earth, it is normal to wish to point the finger. But as the big COP26 climate change conference rapidly approaches, it is important not be be blinded by the rhetoric.

The West may often point the finger toward China and the developing world; but understanding who bears the blame—in both historical and contemporary terms—for the climate crisis can help us lay bare hypocrisies. And laying bare hypocrisies really is crucial for climate justice. 

Historic Emissions

In a recent analysis, Carbon Brief looked at historical responsibility for climate change, asking the question, "Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?" It looked at CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2021, updating a previous analysis published in 2019, including for the first time emissions from land use and forestry, which significantly altered the top ten. 

The analysis put the U.S. in the top ranking, responsible for some 20% of the global total of emissions since 1850. China came in at a relatively distant second with 11%, followed by Russia (7%), Brazil (5%), and Indonesia (4%). 

It found that large post-colonial European nations Germany and the United Kingdom accounted for 4% and 3% of the total, respectively. Crucially, however, these figures do not include overseas emissions under colonial rule and only include internal emissions.

A Clearer Picture

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson gears up to host COP26, he will be keen to paint the UK as a leader on climate change. If one listened only to the rhetoric, it would be easy to see the UK's Westminster Government as a relatively progressive voice on climate change. It has committed itself to a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. But the Conservative government is failing to meet all targets, and some argue that it has no real intention of doing so.

The second issue is that it counts the UK's responsibility in the narrowest possible way. Scotland's targets are more ambitious than those of the UK. And while these have been lauded for their ambition, and for including a fair share of emissions from international aviation and shipping without carbon offsetting, the SNP government has still been put under pressure and criticized for (albeit fairly narrowly) failing to meet targets in recent years.

Understanding both the historical context and responsibility for emissions is important in tackling climate injustice. When we look at Britain's emissions over time, we see that the the wealth and infrastructure enjoyed in the UK has been built on huge amounts of past pollution. 

Danny Chivers, author of "The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change," said, "Every UK resident is sitting on around 1,200 tonnes of historical CO2, making us one of the most historically polluting countries per person in the world. We’re jostling for the top spot on the historic responsibility table with a similar per capita figure as the U.S., compared with 150 historic tonnes per person for China, and 40 tonnes per person for India.” But those figures only account for emissions rising up from the UK's land mass. 

Looking Beyond National Borders

The burden on British heads is actually far greater. As a WWF report of last year stated, 46% of the UK’s emissions come from products made overseas to satisfy demand in the UK.

Historical realities also cast a different light on responsibility. As this article ably elucidates, Britain developed the coal-powered capitalism that kickstarted the crisis, and, through its Empire, exported this around the world. Empire was responsible for destruction of relatively sustainable civilizations, for driving deforestation and ecosystem degradation, and for establishing the unequal societal structures that persist to this day. The Carbon Brief analysis failed to account for the fact that much of the deforestation in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere happened while they were British colonies. 

Britain and the machine that was its Empire are arguably more responsible for climate change than any other global power. And the blame is not only historical—it is also important to remember that Britain is still a major oil economy. BP is British and Shell is Anglo-Dutch. Boris Johnson allowed drilling on the Cambo Oil Field to go ahead, and has failed to block the first coal mine in 30 years, in spite of immense opposition. Follow the money—both government spending and the UK's financial institutions—and it is clear that the UK has thrown considerable capital and weight behind oil and protecting its interests.

It is not technology, a lack of innovation, or public opinion that is holding back the radical action that is needed to avert climate catastrophe. It is the system of power, the defenders of that system, and the deep pockets paying for them, which stand in our way. Taking a look at historical truths, as well as present ones, is crucial to cutting through the rhetoric surrounding COP26 and truly finding our way to climate justice.

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