A new study could help other countries sue the U.S. for harm caused by climate change

Researchers have attempted to quantify just how much certain countries have hurt the rest of the world.

Grangemouth refinery- with rainbow. (Photo by: Planet One Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Im...
Planet One Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
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It’s no secret that countries like the United States, China, and other fossil fuel guzzlers do an outsized amount of damage to the planet by producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. But we’ve never been able to quantify how that harm has affected other nations. In a new study published in the journal Climatic Change, researchers at the University of Dartmouth set out to do just that, placing a figure on the amount of climate-related economic damage that the world’s biggest polluters can be held responsible for.

Using a number of different models that take into account emissions, local climate, and economic development between 1990 and 2014, the researchers were able to attribute the amount of damage that major emissions producers have done to other countries.

Unsurprisingly, the United States managed to top the list for most damage caused. It is responsible for 16.5% of all economic damage caused by climate change — about $1.9 trillion in total over that 25 year period. China ranks second at 15.8%, doing $1.8 trillion in damage to other economies. Those two nations along with Russia, India, and Brazil managed to rack up about $6 trillion in losses experienced by the world, knocking off nearly 11% of total global gross domestic product (GDP).

While we’ve known that climate change damages economic growth across the world — wreaking havoc on agriculture, disrupting trade, damaging infrastructure — the study is the first attempt to actually quantify how industrial nations pass on the harm of their actions to other countries. It shows a wildly uneven picture: one where the U.S. and other northern nations have both avoided the worst effects of climate change while also doing the most to cause harm. Meanwhile, developing nations in the global south have contributed the least amount of harm to others and bore the brunt of the damage.

By putting a figure on this and showing the economic harm that climate change does, the study may be the first step in getting rich nations to pay for the damage. For years, countries have toyed around with the idea of climate financing, in which richer countries help developing nations pay to ditch fossil fuels. Activists would like to see that concept taken a step further with “loss and damage,” which would require countries that have caused the most harm to pay for it.

The latter has often been left out of discussions at climate summits, in part because rich nations would rather not be held so explicitly responsible for their actions and because it’s been hard to actually put a number on how much each country is responsible for. This research addresses one part of that problem. Now it’ll be up to the nations who do harm to actually own up to it and address it.