The widespread use of fossil fuel energy has transformed the world, with mixed results. However, it is essential to realize how one-sided both the benefits and the costs of world energy use have been. In broad strokes, those in the industrialized West have gained much, while those in developing nations have borne most of the burdens.
Two world-historical events show this pattern clearly, one from the nineteenth century and one that is about to happen: industrialization and climate change. Beginning in the eighteenth century in Britain and extending in the nineteenth century to parts of Western Europe and America, industrialization transformed fossil fuel energy into new manufacturing processes, new products, and a new economic order. Industrialization brought many benefits to these nations including longer life spans, economic growth, an abundance of material goods, less physically demanding labor, and more leisure time. There have certainly been some costs associated with industrialization—uneven distributions of the wealth, great poverty existing next to great wealth, sickness due to pollution—but on the whole, the benefits in these nations have outweighed the costs. If you doubt this, ask yourself whether you would really expect to have a better quality of life in England in 1750 than in America today.
However, outside of Europe and America, industrialization has had a much more ambiguous record. The nineteenth century saw a great advance in European colonization of Africa and parts of Asia. While germs were always important to these forays, the industrial technologies of the nineteenth century—steamboats, machine guns, telegraph wires—were essential to maintaining colonial holdings. For much of the world, the direct result of industrialization was subjection to colonial rulers, which led to the extraction of wealth from the countries, repressive government regimes, and slavery. The period of decolonization has been little better, as the withdrawal of colonial governments left decimated infrastructure, weak economies, and power voids that have often been filled by military dictatorships.
In the 21st century, the negative effects of climate change will also be disproportionately felt by developing nations. While climate change is not likely to bring major benefits to anyone—the possible exceptions being northern lands such as Canada and Siberia that might expand agricultural output—the worst will be experienced in poor, low-lying countries. The United States, the biggest contributor to global warming, will get off relatively easily. Even though parts of Florida and the Gulf Coast will likely be covered in water, this loss will be minimal compared to the devastation experienced in other parts of the world.
Many of the nations of the developing world will pay the costs of global warming in human lives. For low-lying countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, much of the land will be lost to sea. By losing farmland, malnutrition will be exacerbated. Standing water also provides ideal grounds for the spread of diseases like cholera and malaria. Even in inland countries, the effects will be significant. Over a billion people depend on the water from the Himalayas. As the glaciers begin melting, this may leave millions without essential fresh water. In mainland Africa, more variable weather conditions will disrupt agricultural patterns and may lead to famine conditions. Famine, malnutrition, and disease are all preventable occurrences, but history shows us that as a global society we have lacked the will and commitment to address these issues. There is little reason to think that it is about to change.
The message is clear: those who have received the benefits of industrialization must stop ignoring the costs of our actions just because they are easily transferred to the rest of the world. Climate change must be addressed, and those countries that have benefited the most must lead the charge. If $100 billion can be dedicated towards rebuilding New Orleans, surely similar resources can be directed towards alleviating the known sufferings—and possible deaths—of millions that will be displaced from their homes and livelihoods by our fossil fuel dependence.