But the rich have moved slowly, and now many governments are balking at undertaking expensive and disruptive action while the developing world gets a free pass.
"The rich should lead, but the rich can't get domestic legislation enacted until they can level the playing field," said Robyn Eckersley, a professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
"Those domestic demands are totally undermining the environmental justice elements of the international climate regime."
The fairest goal is widely seen as a per-capita allocation, where everyone in the world is given the same cap on personal greenhouse gas emissions. Developing nations favor an approach, known as "contraction and convergence," that would bring rich countries' per capita emissions down while increasing the allowance for everyone else.
To hold climate change to a minimum and keep atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations stable at 450 parts per million, that per capita line would need to be well below the current global per-capita average of four tons of carbon dioxide per year.
But it also means revolutionary—and for now, at least, politically impossible—lifestyle changes for the Western world, particularly the United States, where annual per capita carbon emissions top 20 tons.
Another approach, also favored by developing economies, seeks to quantify historical responsibility and capacity to pay. Those countries above the per-capita income threshold pay the costs of the global transition to new energy and emissions paradigms.
That's a non-starter for most rich nations, which seek a different type of equity. They're adding caveats to their cuts, proposing tariffs or other penalties on imports from countries that don't impose tough greenhouse-gas limits. Last month, for instance, the U.S. House of Representatives tacked a "border adjustment tax" to its landmark climate bill, prompting criticism from President Obama and much of the developing world.
That's where this new study could break the impasse.
By focusing on high emitters worldwide, say study authors, it offers a bridge to a more equitable per capita emissions cap.
"The two approaches will eventually converge," said Massimo Tavoni, a researcher at Princeton's Environmental Institute and a study co-author. "This gives you the transition to get to equal per capita emissions.... It's obviously very fair, but it's just very far in the future."
Of course, none of this really works unless the developed world takes the lead. The original 1992 United Nations climate convention, ratified by more than 160 countries, including the United States, says that the developed world needs to act first.
They haven't done that yet, and experts agree time is quickly running out. This proposal is a way to bring the world together soon, they say.
"The north has got some sort of come-to-Jesus moment in its future. We just don't know how it's going to play out," said Tom Athanasiou, founder of EcoEquity, a think tank focused on global climate justice. "It's a terrible situation. It just is. We're way late."
Whether this proposal will earn a spot at the negotiating table is anyone's guess, but Eckersley and Susskind are optimistic its simplicity and fairness could cut through the ossified and polarized negotiations.
"This is not a panacea. This is not all you do," Eckersley said. "There are a lot of other factors you have to put on the table. But this is a starting point."