There is wide agreement increasing levels of CO2 are contributing to rising temperatures worldwide and that climate change poses a threat to the well-being of people around the globe. With the specter of scorching weather, raging storms, and mounting sea levels, scholars and political leaders have debated how much responsibility each country must take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The United States has four and half percent of the world's population but produces 18 percent of human-generated carbon dioxide emissions, a disparity that some say makes the U.S. a bad global citizen where carbon is concerned.

An interdisciplinary team of Stanford researchers led by Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics, asked whether major polluters like the U.S. have not only self-interested motivations but also an ethical duty to decrease their CO2 output. They also proposed a new approach to climate change negotiations that provides a framework for expediting the process, arguing that major polluters should lead the way towards carbon reduction.

Critical challenges 

Though the scientific community has reached a consensus about the dangers of climate change, there has been disagreement about how governments should cooperate to limit greenhouse gas emissions. International treaties have been hampered by the difficulty of forging a coalition that includes a huge number of countries. According to Stanford researchers, breaking that deadlock may require bold action from the world's leading economic powers.

In a paper published in the Intergenerational Justice Review, lead author Kirsten Olsen and her fellow researchers noted that 90% of greenhouse emissions come from thirteen nations, if the European Union (EU) is counted as a single country. They include the U.S., the EU-27, China, Japan, Russia, India, Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia and Brazil. 

Instead of advocating a global agreement about climate change, the Stanford researchers explored the idea of coordinating a response from the thirteen largest emitters alone. This group of countries, which the researchers nicknamed "the baker's dozen," have both moral and practical reasons to curb their emissions. According to the authors, "with aggressive measures, their action would be sufficient to greatly reduce the likelihood of additional dangerous climate change," even if no other countries took part in their efforts. 

Leadership and self-interest

Carbon emissions pose a threat to every nation on earth and if global temperatures continue to rise, rich and poor countries alike will face dire consequences. All countries, it would seem, have an obligation to help stem the increase in carbon output. However, while that may be true, in practical terms negotiating an agreement that includes most of the world's carbon emitters presents a massive challenge. If even a few countries choose not to participate, they can sink the negotiation of a global treaty. Focusing on the largest emitters limits the complexity of a negotiation by decreasing the number of participants, lowering the chance that some parties will walk away from the bargaining table.

The Stanford scholars advocate such an agreement between the major polluters, saying that "the nature of the problem we are facing - its severity and its urgency - means that we have little time to worry about only 'doing our fair share.'" In the interest of their own self-preservation, nations that produce large amounts of carbon should band together to slow their emissions before causing more irreversible climate change. In addition, because other low-emitting countries will be adversely affected by climate change caused by the main polluters, those high-emitting countries have a responsibility to their neighbors to cut CO2. 

Wealthy countries have a particularly strong obligation to cut carbon output, according to the researchers. Developed economies possess the resources to invest in clean technology and set higher efficiency standards for new construction. Their populations can alter consumption habits to decrease their carbon footprint without experiencing significant hardship - by eating less meat, for example. Poorer countries, by contrast, may suffer a slowdown in their economic development if they are forced to restrict their carbon emissions. During the course of their own development, wealthy countries benefitted from carbon-emitting industries, and to deny that benefit to growing economies would be hypocritical, the researchers say.

Given that they have the power to cut greenhouse gas emissions without painful consequences, and because of their historical role in raising CO2 levels, the Stanford group concluded that leading economies have an ethical obligation to do so even if poor countries do not contribute.

New perspectives

This provocative line of reasoning was not the only novel set of ideas raised by the participants in the research, which was funded by a Environmental Venture Project (EVP) grant from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The 2012 grant application process opened November 11th and will be closing on January 9th. Researcher Kirsten Oleson, who participated in the EVP as a PhD student at Stanford's Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, suggested in a peer-reviewed paper that current thinking about global sustainability fails to account for exploitative economic policies. She explored the ethical implications of these policies, making the case that the macroeconomic indicators currently used to measure sustainability have important limitations. 

Reflecting on the value of the Stanford Woods Institute EVP grant in spurring new ideas, Oleson described it as " a catalyst for the development of a community on campus. At any given time, there were ten or twelve people who met every week." 

 Though the dialogue dealt with philosophical questions, the participants attempted to remain as "quantitative" as possible, tying their normative arguments to scientific details and specific policy questions. To do so, members of diverse disciplines met to share ideas, allowing scholars of law and the humanities to engage with scientists and discuss the moral implications of recent scientific research. 

The result was a body of academic work focused on what participants dubbed "quantitative natural resource ethics." The name is meant to evoke the researchers' interest in both hard science related to natural resources and moral questions about how they should best be used. These ideas will get a wider audience when the journal Environmental and Development Economics publishes a special edition dedicated quantitative natural resource ethics, slated for June of 2012.

EVP Researcher Kirsten Oleson is currently Assistant Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Hawai'i.