The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: The Case of Global Environmental Regulation
When it comes to global environmental regulation, I believe that the globe can more or less be broken up into three “worlds.” The U.S., Canada, and large portions of Europe and Asia fall into the developed world. The next world could be described as the developing world and that includes China, India, and Russia. The rest of the globe falls into the third world.
A key indicator of development status is determined by energy use. In the developed world, we use a tremendous amount of energy per person, when compared to the least-developed nations. And for what reasons do we use more energy in developed worlds? Basically, energy consumption is caused by the developed-world’s need to power economies. This includes generating energy needed for building, manufacturing, transporting, heating and cooling. However, energy uses and energy production in the developed world is highly regulated compared to others. Years of experience and research have told us that the production of energy, be it from mining, combustion, nuclear plants, or dams, can have severe and negative impacts on the environment and on people. It’s interesting to note that during the development phase of these same nations, no such regulations existed. This allowed development to occur faster, since no resources had to go into meeting environmental or safety regulations. We did a lot of damage though and the atmosphere is still suffering from the pollution released during the early stages of the now developed world.
Should we impose environmental regulations on developing nations?
Countries such as China and India are rapidly producing energy as they shift their economies from mostly rural and agrarian, to more urban and manufacturing-based. This shift includes the development of a middle class, which increases desire for luxuries like autos, computers, and air conditioning. All of these consume power, which is currently being produced with very little concern for health of either citizens or the environment.
Is it fair to impose restrictions on developing nations, when the now-developed nations did not face such restrictions? In other words, is it fair to slow their development while protecting their citizens and environment? This is a tough question to answer. The most important consideration may be the fact that, while energy is produced and consumed locally, the resulting pollution is often global. It might be easy to put this question in the hands of local governments; basically giving them the choice of rapid development or a healthy society. However, their decisions could ultimately affect global populations.
Another big factor has to do with the amount of knowledge we currently have about the health and environmental effects of energy production. If we had that information a century ago, when the U.S. was developing, would it have mattered? Would we have self-regulated, since there was no one around to regulate “above” us? Who knows? Despite the wealth of research we have today, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that black smoke bellowing from industrial stacks all throughout a city is bad. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that orange, acidic water flowing from coal mines might hurt fish. One might argue that we actually did know better then, but that we just didn’t care as much.
So is it right that we “force” other nations to care for our benefit or does that make us hypocritical?
This issue has tremendous geo-political and economic complexities and there is no easy answer.
Energy literacy and the understanding of consumption as it relates to the environment must begin at a pedestrian level. Informing the public through campaigns is one avenue to start a movement toward regulating at the local level. As for mitigating global concerns, conventions and treaties are an effective way to gain momentum to develop new sanctions and to limit harmful gasses and emissions. This could ultimately benefit everyone’s world, regardless of its development status.
By Daniel Welsch, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Program Director, Science at American Public University