Legal Disputes Related to Climate Change Will Continue for a Century

By Pierce, Richard J., Jr. | Environmental Law, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Legal Disputes Related to Climate Change Will Continue for a Century


Pierce, Richard J., Jr., Environmental Law


I. INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM

I am confident that my current students will be working on legal issues related to climate change until they retire fifty years from now.

The average global temperature is already certain to increase by 2[degrees]F. (1) It will increase by far more, with other major attendant changes in climate, unless we reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by at least 50% by 2050. (2) The effects of failing to accomplish that daunting task will be catastrophic. They include the deaths of millions and the displacement of scores of millions. (3) The worst effects will be experienced in places like India and Africa, which will suffer extreme desertification, and in many island states as well as coastal Indonesia and large portions of Bangladesh, which will be underwater. (4) The U.S. will also suffer some significant adverse effects, including desertification of much of the southwest, submersion of significant coastal areas, increases in the incidence and severity of storms of various types, (5) and a 12[degrees] increase in the average summer temperature in Washington, D.C. (6)

The task of effectively mitigating climate change is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible. The main problem is carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) emissions. C[O.sub.2] is by far the most abundant GHG, and it is the inevitable byproduct of hydrocarbon combustion. (7)

While the U.S. is the second largest source of C[O.sub.2], neither the U.S. nor the developed world have accounted for any significant increase in emissions in several years. (8) Even if it were to take no steps to reduce C[O.sub.2] emissions, the developed world is unlikely to increase emissions of GHGs by any significant amount in the future because of the steady improvements in energy efficiency that always occur over time. The increases in C[O.sub.2] emissions over the last few years and in the future will occur almost exclusively in the developing world, with China alone accounting for a majority of the increase.

This trend is easy to explain. The citizens of the developing world want the kinds of goods and services that we have long taken for granted, such as cars and air conditioning, for example. As they become increasingly able to indulge those preferences, they will increase their per capita emissions of C[O.sub.2].

Reducing C[O.sub.2] emissions in the developed world by 50% would not be nearly enough to accomplish the goal of reducing global emissions by 50%. The developed world must reduce its emissions by far more than 50% to offset the inevitable increases in emissions in the developing world. That task is made more difficult by the basic laws of supply and demand. Most hydrocarbons are sold on global markets. To the extent that the developed world is successful in reducing C[O.sub.2] emissions through some means--for example, a carbon tax or subsidies for carbon-free sources of energy--the attendant reduction in the quantity of hydrocarbons demanded will decrease the global price of hydrocarbons. That, in turn, will increase consumption of hydrocarbons in the developing world, unless developing countries also adopt means of reducing this consumption--a step they have not been willing to take to date. The resulting increase in consumption of hydrocarbons in developing countries has the potential to offset 29%-70% of the reductions in hydrocarbon consumption in the developed world. (10) Thus, countries in the developed world need to reduce C[O.sub.2] emissions by far more than 50% even if countries in the developing world can be persuaded to take steps to reduce the otherwise dramatic increase in their C[O.sub.2] emissions.

While the broad outlines of the relationship between C[O.sub.2] emissions and climate change are well known, there is at least one major source of uncertainty. We do not have a good understanding of the shape of the doseresponse curve that describes the relationship.

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Legal Disputes Related to Climate Change Will Continue for a Century
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