The standard, “flirting with apocalypse” narrative that dominates U.S. media coverage and political debates regarding climate change goes something like this: China, which is the world’s biggest carbon emitter, and India, which is lightly industrialized and still quite substantially poor, currently represent the biggest threats to saving the environment. The supposedly more altruistic West, by contrast, is prepared to make huge investments to forestall disaster.
People who cling to this all-too-easy framing correctly say that if the world’s two most-populous countries do not radically constrain their carbon output, nothing the United States or Europe can do, including rapidly attaining net-zero emissions, will be enough to spare the world from catastrophe. Adding to this, conservatives warn that if China and India don’t agree to difficult and costly reforms in their use of energy, Western publics will find it unacceptable to bear these burdens themselves.
While views like this show no sign of losing their purchase on the climate change narrative, the shortcomings inherent in this characterization of the world’s predicament are stark. Limiting the frame of reference to the West versus China and India not only badly miscasts the historical background of the global carbon emergency, but also impedes the kind of forward-looking thinking that is so badly needed if human society is ever to work its way out of this dire situation.