Illustrated by: Akshaya Varakunan

If you don’t believe that climate change exists, don’t read any further.

That wasn’t some bold political statement. I was originally going to cover the abundant evidence from atmospheric measurements and millennia-old ice cores which prove that humanity has affected Earth’s climate. I was then going to explain how it all started when we first began using fossil fuels at scale during the Industrial Revolution [1]. I also wanted to explore the patchwork of international law concerning climate change, from the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—first to acknowledge climate change—to the Glasgow Climate Pact just signed in November 2021 [2]. I even found a cutting-edge in-browser climate model that would show how anthropogenic effects far outweighed natural climate change and demonstrate the impacts of various climate policies [3]. However, I eventually realised that many readers wouldn’t want to read two thousand words about the structure of the UN and another two on global wind currents, JavaScript does not ordinarily run in .pdfs, and The Reckoner had a strict word limit on editorials [4].


Instead, let me take you to Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bass). It’s an archipelago of islands in the central Pacific that you’ve probably never heard of. There are just over 100,000 people there, and climate change is a daily reality for all of them. Agriculture is a primary source of income, and rising sea levels have been destroying their freshwater supply and crops. As a result, many residents are famous activists, often confronting oil executives at conferences [5]. But the executives aren’t worried one bit. Even if we stopped using all fossil fuels tomorrow, Kiribati will be completely underwater in a few decades—and when was the last time a stateless refugee was invited to a climate conference? 

The average Canadian has the same carbon footprint as 40 Kiribatians, yet Canada won’t be the one that will be entirely underwater in decades. Such is the reality of climate change. Pacific island countries are the most threatened by climate change, even though they emit the least carbon both in total and per capita [6]. Other regions of the world are similar. Africa is running out of water during a population boom, and Southeast Asia is battered by typhoon after typhoon [7]. Meanwhile, the Middle East is warming twice as fast as the global average, and some areas will soon be too hot for humans to survive in the future [8]. Countries in those regions—barring oil-rich ones with more funds to deal with climate change—are affected the most despite contributing only a fraction of our impact to climate change [6].

It gets worse. Not only are first world countries currently emitting more greenhouse gases, they have also historically emitted far more greenhouse gases than other countries [9]. While some might say that we need to focus on the current picture of carbon emissions, the fact remains: every atom of carbon released into the atmosphere has affected the global climate, even if it didn’t show up on the UN’s latest annual emissions report. Now that developed countries have emitted many times their “fair share” of emissions, many developing countries are demanding “climate reparations” for their lost economic opportunities before committing to any reduction in emissions—effectively holding the entire world hostage [10]. However, if everyone wants developing countries to invest titanic sums in reducing emissions and no one wants to foot the bill, what are they to do? Why should they reduce emissions if they benefit more from continuing to develop and emit?

Like every other developed country, Canada agreed to the Rio formula in 1992 that stipulated “common and differentiated responsibilities” in climate action [2]. We like the “common” part—”we’re all in this together” is a common refrain—but not so much the “responsibility” part. You may recall Trump facing global condemnation for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement because he felt it was unfair to the US—it’s worth noting here that America makes up less than 5% of the global population but uses over 25% of the world’s resources [11]. But you may not have realised that it was only the latest event in a long history of developed countries agreeing to targets with multi-year deadlines that they later won’t meet. Clinton agreed to the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, before Bush withdrew in 2001. Its deadline was 2012. If you think Canada was any better, we withdrew right before the deadline because we didn’t want to pay the financial penalty for missing our targets [12].

We outsource our production and disposal to developing countries, then inevitably attack them for the resultant pollution [18]. They mine the rare earth metals in our smartphones, produce them for a fraction of the cost, and later allow us to dispose of the toxic e-waste by dumping it in their lands [13]. Why don’t we do that in our homes and watch our emissions rise? Perhaps you already know the answer. We’re worried about our future, and third-world residents aren’t. That’s because they don’t have a future. They don’t even have a present. 

“So what,” I hear you say. “Big deal. It’s unfair, but we’ll give them aid and they can develop sustainably.” If you think that, I have bad news. Recently, rich countries completely missed a 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion to poor and vulnerable countries by 2020. $100 billion was estimated as the bare minimum that poor countries needed to adapt to climate change, to say nothing of reducing emissions. By various independent estimates, the developed world scraped up anywhere from 1% to 23% of that—Canada contributing far less than our fair share based on historic emissions, current emissions, population, and relative wealth. Now, the same $100 billion funding goal has been set for 2022. Do you think we’ll succeed [14]?

At the COP26 climate conference, the British conference president boldly proclaimed that “We [should] leave [coal] in the past where it belongs,” to much applause [15]. That was easy for him to say because the UK is a developed country and doesn’t need coal—it was even the first to announce a phase-out schedule for coal in 2015. Like him, you might also think that we should abandon coal as quickly as possible. In our comfortable and modern lives, coal seems a relic of the past. The millions of coal labourers and electricity-less citizens of India would disagree. “If there is coal, then we live. If there isn’t any coal, then we don’t,” a coal scavenger observed in an interview with the Associated Press [16]. The loose pieces of coal they scavenge and sell every day are a promise of industry and further development, similar to how it heralded progress for Britain in the Industrial Revolution when Britain produced and used the most coal in the world. To us, coal is the past. But for the citizens of India—as well as for many in other developing countries—coal is the future. Their future [17]. 

The point of this article is not to make readers feel guilty about their privilege of living in a developed country, but to present an accurate picture of today’s global inequalities and stir them to action. Our governments implore developing countries to cut emissions when we should be leading by example and reducing our disproportionate carbon emissions. We hardly are. But if enough people demand change, the companies and governments—including ours—most responsible for climate change can be brought in line with domestic law and international treaties. And if that happens, the resulting emissions reduction would be far greater than could be effected by any amount of condemnations directed at developing countries for daring to emit emissions and develop—and better yet, the post-reduction situation would be far more equal than the world is now. Only then can we bandage the wounds of climate change and look past the shared struggles—to an uncertain future.

In the meantime, I’m trying to stay mindful of contradictions. Contradictions like when the most anticipated climate conference ever also has the largest carbon footprint. Contradictions like promoting global coal bans when billions rely on it for electricity. Contradictions like countries that should be reducing their emissions forcing developing countries to do so instead.