Stoking the Flames of Competitiveness on an Overheating Planet

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This essay is in response to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs video “Climate Protectionism and Competitiveness.”  

Steam put the world in motion. It lit up the night, and tightened humanity’s grasp on the forces of nature. Nature, however, has eluded the human race and has forced civilization to reconsider its power in the most fundamental sense. Scientist, politicians, and citizens now face the heat as they scramble to address a cycle of global warming spawned by the progress of the industrial revolution that threatens to unhinge the fragile balance of Earth’s ecosystems. Reducing carbon emissions has been the answer to the problem. This standard that has taken hold in developed nations has morphed into a global economic crusade against carbon emissions through regulation, taxation and sanctions seeking to curb the emissions of the developing world. Although consumer responsibility and global collaboration in an endeavor to reverse global warming trends are laudable, it is important to recognize the risks these steps pose on global trade, the citizens of developing countries, and the debt developed nations have as beneficiaries of the first fruits of fossil fuels.

The United States owes its status as an economic superpower to the progress of the industrial revolution; a revolution fueled by carbon emitting fossil fuels. The rapid growth of nations such as Unites States reliant on fossil fuels came at price–rising global temperatures. Carbon doesn’t only heat up cold economies, it also has the ability to raise average global temperatures as it gets trapped in the atmosphere and captures solar radiation. These shifts in temperature have precipitated evident changes in the environment. Recent glacial melting, super storms, and inflated and more rapid extinction rates can all be traced to these rising temperatures. In response, the United States and other developed nations have sought alternative fuels to reduce carbon emissions. These measures entail large investments of capital, and higher costs of production–a reality that makes production in underdeveloped nations more cost effective and foreign products cheaper. This reality, coupled with policies and regulations that seek to reduce carbon emissions through taxation and sanctions on developing nations still very dependent on fossil fuels, raises a host of ethical questions–particularly regarding the right and motive a developed nation has in enforcing such measures.

Competitive advantage, and how it has been gained, is clearly a reality that must be assessed when addressing the justice behind taxation and regulation imposed on developing economies. Developing nations lack the capital to invest in clean technology–capital developed nations have as a result of their prosperity, which was only made possible by carbon emitting fossil fuels. It may seem reasonable to tax and regulate nations seeking to create strong economies through the competitive advantages they may possess, but to simply apply these based on a green energy movement fails to address the heart of the problem, and may embroil admirable causes such as conservation and sustainability in an actual trade war. The United States in particular has benefited the most over the last one hundred fifty years as number one in cumulative carbon emissions (Romm). This lead has given America the title of super power–a super power now capable of retrofitting the engines of its industry to comply with carbon emissions regulations. The world has paid the price for the developed world’s prosperity, and taxation only continues to impose costs. Such a reality begs the question as to how such policy simply continues to suppress the developing world, and exactly how much this policy is geared toward that specific goal given the recent nationalist rhetoric.

Addressing the matter of climate change and carbon emissions must include the realization that the United States and other developed nations have a moral duty to ensure the common good of all while enforcing pollution regulation, especially in cases where nations and people are at the brink of absolute poverty. These people continue to pay the price of the pollution emitted by developed countries over the last century through the climate change and ecological meltdowns unfolding today. These people should not be burdened with the weight of economic stagnation and recession at the hands of policies that shroud efforts to manipulate trade and productivity in the vail of social responsibility. Developed nations must address the real problem of climate change and the need to curb global carbon emission in light of the duty they have to those nations that may be totally shunned in a “green” world.

The responsibility the developed world bears in the wake of this environmental, social, and economic awakening must go beyond simply curbing emissions if any efforts can be hailed as just and in the interest of the common good. These efforts in the short term may be harmful to developed nations, but must stem from a fervent realization that economic power was purchased at a cost the world is bearing, a cost which has disproportionality impact the poor, a cost which must be balanced. Omission, or the reduction of carbon emissions by the developed nations, will in no manner attest to the solidarity this problem calls for. Emissions quotas may curb the global warming trend, but they are no clear path toward a future in which humanity recognizes the fact that this blue green rock floating through space is a common home. Capital investment from the developed nations in the economies of the developing world geared towards bolstering efforts toward green technology and industry is truly the only path that will avoid the maleficence of taxation and regulation. In this short term, this path may cost the developed nations, but in this manner, the economies of both nations can grow in the long term, and a true interest in the socio-economic well-being of all people can be made manifest.

By: Michael Aprea
Written By Fordham University Center for Ethics Education
Michael Aprea
 is completing his M.A. in Ethics & Society at Fordham University.

Romm, Joseph. “U.S. Responsible for 29 Percent of CO2 Emissions over past 150 Years, Triple China’s Share.” Grist. N.p., 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. 


Stoking the Flames of Competitiveness on an Overheating Planet was originally published @ Ethics and Society and has been syndicated with permission.


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