climate change human rights race

Climate free riders and second hand smoke

Greenhouse gas emissions work like ‘second hand smoke’ according to a new study from the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Many countries with high emissions will suffer relatively little from a warming world, while some of the lowest emitters will face catastrophic effects.


Carbon emissions are produced in-country, but their impact is global and affects different parts of the world in different ways. The study plotted climate change vulnerability against emissions levels, and found that there was a serious mismatch. Many of the world’s biggest emitters are essentially free riders. 20 out of the 36 countries with the largest footprints are also among the least vulnerable, including the US, Canada and most of Western Europe.

Conversely, some of the countries with the lowest emissions are the most vulnerable, especially island nations or in Sub-Saharan Africa. Several countries, including Gambia, Comoros and the Solomon Islands, were in the lowest quintile on emissions and the highest quintile for vulnerability. These are referred to as ‘forced riders’ in the report, and appear in dark green in the map below.


“This is an issue of environmental equity on a truly global scale” says the report, which is hard to argue with.

If unaddressed, climate change could turn out to be a justice issue on the scale of the slave trade, with a legacy every bit as racially charged, raw and divisive.


  1. Two bad analogies. Second hand smoke isn’t worse for the non smoker, the smoker suffers more from their smoking, they are more likely to get cancer

    The slave trade enriched lots of Africans so the global justice issue is more complex than portrayed here.

    Separately the reason these countries are more vulnerable is because they are poorer, so the solution is to follow policies to make them richer.

    1. All true, and I don’t know how much complexity you expect from a 300 word blog post. I’m pointing people to an important piece of research, not attempting to sum up the whole issue.

      The challenge to you is to look at what this really means, rather than push it away. If this is a global injustice of historic significance, do you really want to be one of the people that picks holes in it or looks for excuses not to act?

      1. Well, we could argue over whether supporting policies that would slow or stop the enriching of the poor would be an issue of equal or greater global injustice. Do you want to be on the wrong side of that?

        A richer world can deal with climate change better than a poorer one, indeed a richer world will generate fewer emissions than a poorer one. So isn’t growth the bigger goal? That’s your challenge.

        1. As I’ve said dozens of times, growth accumulates so much faster for the richest that we’d have destabilised the climate long before we got those on $1 a day onto $2.

          In an age of climate change, it really isn’t good enough to say we can carry on with business as usual and growth will solve all our problems.

          1. But without the creation of that wealth we can’t afford to deal with climate change.

            And if growth really did mostly accumulate in the wealthy world no country could catch up. That is why South Korea is still poorer than Pakistan… oh yes, it isn’t.

            1. South Korea? That’s funny. As Ha-Joon Chang has made his career pointing out, you wouldn’t approve of most of the methods they used to develop. You’ll no doubt deny it, but it’s no proof of your ideas about free trade.

              The argument that we need more wealth to afford climate mitigation is nonsense in the developed world. There’s always money for military ventures or nuclear weapons, for fossil fuel subsidies, or a thousand other things. It’s a matter of priorities.

          2. The developed world might have money to pay for climate mitigation but my argument is that the poorer countries don’t and they are the ones that need the growth to afford it.

            Since you can’t control the global economy so that growth only occurs where you want it (you fancy trying?) then you need to accept the rich world needs to grow to create markets for poorer ones to sell to.

            Without western markets being open South Korea wouldn’t have had the markets sell to. Protecting their own markets created the Chaebol and oligarchs with huge political power. Sure that disproves free markets?

            Sure we can close schools and hospitals to pay for climate mitigation, it’s a matter of priorities.

  2. Great article. This is such an important point, and it’s what makes climate change so much more than an environmental issue. It’s a human rights and global justice issue first and foremost.

    DevonChamp… You say “A richer world can deal with climate change better than a poorer one, indeed a richer world will generate fewer emissions than a poorer one.” – please tell me why you think that? What evidence do you have? I’ve done a fair amount of research on this topic (at university and in my own time since I graduated) and I’ve never found anything that proves this, and instead I’ve found much to the contrary. I’m not suggesting you made it up. I’ve read it many times before – in The Economist and places like that. It just seems to be an ideologically-driven truism without actual data behind it. A richer country can adapt to climate change easier, that’s certainly true. But it doesn’t follow that it’s the same on the global scale – since we already have plenty enough global wealth to deal with climate change and economic growth is tightly correlated with rising emissions.

    1. Well the IPCC SRES and RCP scenarios for projected future emissions have overall lower emissions for higher growth, technology led future which is pretty much straight line from current trends (such as falling solar prices) compared to slower growth ones.

      Replacing high carbon energy with low carbon costs lots of money. German can only afford the Energiewende because it is rich, a poorer country would not be able to pay for those subsidies.

      You can’t just take money from richer countries and give to poorer ones for so many reasons. Only by poorer countries getting richer will they be able to afford mitigation if required. The good news is that globalization, free trade and free market capitalism have over the last 30 years have enriched many poorer countries. We need to ensure that we don’t bring in policies that harm the global economy and make it harder for poorer countries to get rich.

      1. …I would argue the developing countries that have got rich (or richer) have done so in spite of free market capitalism and not because of it. So called ”free” trade deals are all about extracting as much wealth as possible from developing countries, just as the elite in rich countries have for centuries!
        And even though moving to renewable energy needs subsidies, (like any fledgling industry) so do fossil fuesl – apparently. The IMF says last year the world paid a shocking $5.3 TRILLION in fossil fuel subsidies! And they aren’t even new technology!
        It’s been calculated that if present economic trends continue, it will take 200 years for even the most devastating extreme poverty to be eliminated. Even if 200 years of business as usual was environmentally possible (extremely doubtful) then that is still ethically unacceptable. Free market capitalism is just not a very good system. Just because it’s better than authoritarian communism or medieval feudalism doesn’t mean people should accept it as the best we can do.

    2. Congratulations to Tegan Tallulah for this ‘we already have plenty enough global wealth to deal with climate change’. Doesn’t this sum it up? The article Jeremy cites, says ‘developing and developed countries continue to disagree over the extent of each other’s responsibilities’. Meanwhile emissions rise and time is not on our side. (Could it be a blessing in disguise? – just another side-line to add to assumptions and arguments!).

  3. The casual assumption that wealth is the answer is in large part a mis-appropriation of the Kuznets Curve, which I’ve written about here:

    I wouldn’t lean too hard on the IPCC’s technology driven growth scenarios, as they depend on widespread adoption of technologies we don’t yet have at scale – such as CSS. Higher growth means higher emissions, and those scenarios require us not just to slow emissions, but to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere later.

    1. Well, given that the cost of solar power is falling faster than those scenarios predict we can’t say that it will result in higher emissions overall. And we still have to pay for the cost of conversion/mitigation. If you think we can just mug 86 rich guys as Ocean seem to think you are very much mistaken.

        1. Mugging millionaires wasn’t aimed at you, more the notion expressed on the that the world is rich enough already for whatever spending they would like.

          It isn’t all about you.

  4. I’m my role as the one who looks to the practicality rather than moral judgement it is really unlikely that European or American voters (who are almost all in the top 10% of global income) will agree to yet deeper austerity in order to give billions to famously corrupt and inefficient African governments in order to pay for such apparently nonsensical schemes such as flood defences in Mali.

    The comparison with the slave trade is instructive. Despite it supposedly being a huge topic of global injustice the most the descendants of former slaves will ever get is perhaps an verbal apology.

    Perhaps that offends your morals but remember, no one like someone trying to guilt trip them.

    1. Could you please explain the ‘supposedly’ in your comment there? It sounds like you’re suggesting the slave trade wasn’t a global injustice, which is pretty radical.

      Putting aside the issue of reparations, is it okay that all decendants get is a verbal apology?

      And if you could see an issue like the slave trade in advance, wouldn’t you want to stop it?

      1. Well, something that finished 100 years ago and all those directly effected are dead is not perhaps the most pressing issue.

        I have no problem with a verbal apology for slavery. No nation has a blemish free past and as we advance what was accepted becomes unacceptable and it is right to acknowledge that. If it makes those who feel aggrieved by slavery happier without imposing a new injustice on the guilt free populations of countries that particpated in the salve trade, then why not?

        As to if climate change is a new slave trade, an issue is that those poorer countries have benefited from the carbon powered industrial economy through modern medicine and communications and many other things. Their future development stems from advances made by and selling to the ‘polluter’ countries. This they have benefited from the carbon dioxide that harms them.
        As a matter of policy since we would like then to adopt low carbon technology for their development they can negotiate for the richer countries to pay some money for carbon mitigation but that is a quid pro quo.
        As I have said, you do not friends by trying to make people feel guilty. You don’t win arguments that way either.

        1. What will those benefits be worth if, in the case of the island nations, they cease to exist altogether?

          Now, if you can see a problem that serious developing, what do you have to offer besides your warm words about business as usual? You’re the practical one, apparently.

          1. I think you can guess my solution: more free trade. Enrich these countries through trade rather than buying off our consciences with handouts where we play Lady Bountiful and they play poor relations.

            Lowering our tariffs is a much better way to compensate for climate change and for those countries to build resilience. If you wanted to term it that way it could be our moral duty.

  5. I think that examples of the poor benefitting from the wealth of others have today been far outweighed by the global detrimental effects of inequality on one and all, (second-hand smoke is a partial matter). We may have little hope with the extreme rich on board, but surely, none without them. The question is how the extremely rich will respond to the risk of becoming involved in the fall-out. Will they continue to believe that their wealth will always protect them and their families to come? Do we believe it? I think the moral imperative is creeping under the back door even if the ‘smoke’ is currently passing onto others. (Of course, speaking in such terms is jibberish to some)..

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