One last chance to save the world -
for months, that's how the United Nations summit on climate change
in Copenhagen, which starts in early December, was being hyped.
Officials from 192 countries were finally going to make a deal to
keep global temperatures below catastrophic levels. The summit
called for "that old comic-book sensibility of uniting in the face
of a common danger threatening the Earth," said Todd Stern,
President Obama's chief envoy on climate issues. "It's not a meteor
or a space invader, but the damage to our planet, to our community,
to our children and their children will be just as great."
That was back in March. Since then, the endless battle over
health care reform has robbed much of the president's momentum on
climate change. With Copenhagen now likely to begin before Congress
has passed even a weak-ass climate bill co-authored by the coal
lobby, U.S. politicians have dropped the superhero metaphors and
are scrambling to lower expectations for achieving a serious deal
at the climate summit. It's just one meeting, says U.S. Energy
Secretary Steven Chu, not "the be-all and end-all."
As faith in government action dwindles, however, climate
activists are treating Copenhagen as an opportunity of a different
kind. On track to be the largest environmental gathering in
history, the summit represents a chance to seize the political
terrain back from business-friendly half-measures, such as carbon
offsets and emissions trading, and introduce some effective,
common-sense proposals - ideas that have less to do with
creating complex new markets for pollution and more to do with
keeping coal and oil in the ground.
Among the smartest and most promising - not to mention
controversial - proposals is "climate debt," the idea that
rich countries should pay reparations to poor countries for the
climate crisis. In the world of climate-change activism, this marks
a dramatic shift in both tone and content. American
environmentalism tends to treat global warming as a force that
transcends difference: We all share this fragile blue planet, so we
all need to work together to save it. But the coalition of Latin
American and African governments making the case for climate debt
actually stresses difference, zeroing in on the cruel contrast
between those who caused the climate crisis (the developed world)
and those who are suffering its worst effects (the developing
world). Justin Lin, chief economist at the World Bank, puts the
equation bluntly: "About 75 to 80 percent" of the damages caused by
global warming "will be suffered by developing countries, although
they only contribute about one-third of greenhouse gases."
Climate debt is about who will pick up the bill. The grass-roots
movement behind the proposal argues that all the costs associated
with adapting to a more hostile ecology - everything from
building stronger sea walls to switching to cleaner, more expensive
technologies - are the responsibility of the countries that
created the crisis. "What we need is not something we should be
begging for but something that is owed to us, because we are
dealing with a crisis not of our making," says Lidy Nacpil, one of
the coordinators of Jubilee South, an international organization
that has staged demonstrations to promote climate reparations.
"Climate debt is not a matter of charity."
Sharon Looremeta, an advocate for Maasai tribespeople in Kenya
who have lost at least 5 million cattle to drought in recent years,
puts it in even sharper terms. "The Maasai community does not drive
4x4s or fly off on holidays in airplanes," she says. "We have not
caused climate change, yet we are the ones suffering. This is an
injustice and should be stopped right now."
The case for climate debt begins like
most discussions of climate change: with the science. Before the
Industrial Revolution, the density of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere - the key cause of global warming - was
about 280 parts per million. Today, it has reached 387 ppm -
far above safe limits - and it's still rising. Developed
countries, which represent less than 20 percent of the world's
population, have emitted almost 75 percent of all greenhouse-gas
pollution that is now destabilizing the climate. (The U.S. alone,
which comprises barely five percent of the global population,
contributes 25 percent of all carbon emissions.) And while
developing countries like China and India have also begun to spew
large amounts of carbon dioxide, the reasoning goes, they are not
equally responsible for the cost of the cleanup, because they have
contributed only a small fraction of the 200 years of cumulative
pollution that has caused the crisis.
In Latin America, left-wing economists have long argued that
Western powers owe a vaguely defined "ecological debt" to the
continent for centuries of colonial land-grabs and resource
extraction. But the emerging argument for climate debt is far more
concrete, thanks to a relatively new body of research putting
precise figures on who emitted what and when. "What is exciting,"
says Antonio Hill, senior climate adviser at Oxfam, "is you can
really put numbers on it. We can measure it in tons of CO₂
and come up with a cost."
Equally important, the idea is supported by the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change - ratified by 192
countries, including the United States. The framework not only
asserts that "the largest share of historical and current global
emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed
countries," it clearly states that actions taken to fix the problem
should be made "on the basis of equity and in accordance with their
common but differentiated responsibilities."
The reparations movement has brought together a diverse
coalition of big international organizations, from Friends of the
Earth to the World Council of Churches, that have joined up with
climate scientists and political economists, many of them linked to
the influential Third World Network, which has been leading the
call. Until recently, however, there was no government pushing for
climate debt to be included in the Copenhagen agreement. That
changed in June, when Angelica Navarro, the chief climate
negotiator for Bolivia, took the podium at a U.N. climate
negotiation in Bonn, Germany. Only 36 and dressed casually in a
black sweater, Navarro looked more like the hippies outside than
the bureaucrats and civil servants inside the session. Mixing the
latest emissions science with accounts of how melting glaciers were
threatening the water supply in two major Bolivian cities, Navarro
made the case for why developing countries are owed massive
compensation for the climate crisis.
"Millions of people - in small islands, least-developed
countries, landlocked countries as well as vulnerable communities
in Brazil, India and China, and all around the world - are
suffering from the effects of a problem to which they did not
contribute," Navarro told the packed room. In addition to facing an
increasingly hostile climate, she added, countries like Bolivia
cannot fuel economic growth with cheap and dirty energy, as the
rich countries did, since that would only add to the climate crisis
- yet they cannot afford the heavy upfront costs of switching
to renewable energies like wind and solar.
The solution, Navarro argued, is three-fold. Rich countries need
to pay the costs associated with adapting to a changing climate,
make deep cuts to their own emission levels "to make atmospheric
space available" for the developing world, and pay Third World
countries to leapfrog over fossil fuels and go straight to cleaner
alternatives. "We cannot and will not give up our rightful claim to
a fair share of atmospheric space on the promise that, at some
future stage, technology will be provided to us," she said.
The speech galvanized activists across the world. In recent
months, the governments of Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Paraguay and
Malaysia have endorsed the concept of climate debt. More than 240
environmental and development organizations have signed a statement
calling for wealthy nations to pay their climate debt, and 49 of
the world's least-developed countries will take the demand to
Copenhagen as a negotiating bloc.
"If we are to curb emissions in the next decade, we need a
massive mobilization larger than any in history," Navarro declared
at the end of her talk. "We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth.
This plan must mobilize financing and technology transfer on scales
never seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every
country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people's
quality of life. We have only a decade."
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A very expensive decade. The World Bank puts the cost that
developing countries face from climate change - everything
from crops destroyed by drought and floods to malaria spread by
mosquito-infested waters - as high as $100 billion a year.
And shifting to renewable energy, according to a team of United
Nations researchers, will raise the cost far more: to as much as
$600 billion a year over the next decade.
Unlike the recent bank bailouts, however, which simply
transferred public wealth to the world's richest financial
institutions, the money spent on climate debt would fuel a global
environmental transformation essential to saving the entire planet.
The most exciting example of what could be accomplished is the
ongoing effort to protect Ecuador's Yasuní National Park.
This extraordinary swath of Amazonian rainforest, which is home to
several indigenous tribes and a surreal number of rare and exotic
animals, contains nearly as many species of trees in 2.5 acres as
exist in all of North America. The catch is that underneath that
riot of life sits an estimated 850 million barrels of crude oil,
worth about $7 billion. Burning that oil - and logging the
rainforest to get it - would add another 547 million tons of
carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Two years ago, Ecuador's center-left president, Rafael Correa,
said something very rare for the leader of an oil-exporting nation:
He wanted to leave the oil in the ground. But, he argued, wealthy
countries should pay Ecuador - where half the population
lives in poverty - not to release that carbon into the
atmosphere, as "compensation for the damages caused by the
out-of-proportion amount of historical and current emissions of
greenhouse gases." He didn't ask for the entire amount; just half.
And he committed to spending much of the money to move Ecuador to
alternative energy sources like solar and geothermal.
Largely because of the beauty of the Yasuní, the plan has
generated widespread international support. Germany has already
offered $70 million a year for 13 years, and several other European
governments have expressed interest in participating. If
Yasuní is saved, it will demonstrate that climate debt isn't
just a disguised ploy for more aid - it's a far more credible
solution to the climate crisis than the ones we have now. "This
initiative needs to succeed," says Atossa Soltani, executive
director of Amazon Watch. "I think we can set a model for other
Activists point to a huge range of other
green initiatives that would become possible if wealthy countries
paid their climate debts. In India, mini power plants that run on
biomass and solar power could bring low-carbon electricity to many
of the 400 million Indians currently living without a light bulb.
In cities from Cairo to Manila, financial support could be given to
the armies of impoverished "trash pickers" who save as much as 80
percent of municipal waste in some areas from winding up in garbage
dumps and trash incinerators that release planet-warming pollution.
And on a much larger scale, coal-fired power plants across the
developing world could be converted into more efficient facilities
using existing technology, cutting their emissions by more than a
But to ensure that climate reparations are real, advocates
insist, they must be independent of the current system of
international aid. Climate money cannot simply be diverted from
existing aid programs, such as primary education or HIV prevention.
What's more, the funds must be provided as grants, not loans, since
the last thing developing countries need is more debt. Furthermore,
the money should not be administered by the usual suspects like the
World Bank and USAID, which too often push pet projects based on
Western agendas, but must be controlled by the United Nations
climate convention, where developing countries would have a direct
say in how the money is spent.
Without such guarantees, reparations will be meaningless -
and without reparations, the climate talks in Copenhagen will
likely collapse. As it stands, the U.S. and other Western nations
are engaged in a lose-lose game of chicken with developing nations
like India and China: We refuse to lower our emissions unless they
cut theirs and submit to international monitoring, and they refuse
to budge unless wealthy nations cut first and cough up serious
funding to help them adapt to climate change and switch to clean
energy. "No money, no deal," is how one of South Africa's top
environmental officials put it. "If need be," says Ethiopian Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi, speaking on behalf of the African Union, "we
are prepared to walk out."
In the past, President Obama has recognized the principle on
which climate debt rests. "Yes, the developed nations that caused
much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have
a responsibility to lead," he acknowledged in his September speech
at the United Nations. "We have a responsibility to provide the
financial and technical assistance needed to help these
[developing] nations adapt to the impacts of climate change and
pursue low-carbon development."
Yet as Copenhagen draws near, the U.S. negotiating position
appears to be to pretend that 200 years of over-emissions never
happened. Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator, has
scoffed at a Chinese and African proposal that developed countries
pay as much as $400 billion a year in climate financing as "wildly
unrealistic" and "untethered to reality." Yet he put no alternative
number on the table - unlike the European Union, which has
offered to kick in up to $22 billion. U.S. negotiators have even
suggested that countries could fund climate debt by holding
periodic "pledge parties," making it clear that they see covering
the costs of climate change as a matter of whimsy, not duty.
But shunning the high price of climate change carries a cost of
its own. U.S. military and intelligence agencies now consider
global warming a leading threat to national security. As sea levels
rise and droughts spread, competition for food and water will only
increase in many of the world's poorest nations. These regions will
become "breeding grounds for instability, for insurgencies, for
warlords," according to a 2007 study for the Center for Naval
Analyses led by Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former Centcom commander.
To keep out millions of climate refugees fleeing hunger and
conflict, a report commissioned by the Pentagon in 2003 predicted
that the U.S. and other rich nations would likely decide to "build
defensive fortresses around their countries."
Setting aside the morality of building high-tech fortresses to
protect ourselves from a crisis we inflicted on the world, those
enclaves and resource wars won't come cheap. And unless we pay our
climate debt, and quickly, we may well find ourselves living in a
world of climate rage. "Privately, we already hear the simmering
resentment of diplomats whose countries bear the costs of our
emissions," Sen. John Kerry observed recently. "I can tell you from
my own experience: It is real, and it is prevalent. It's not hard
to see how this could crystallize into a virulent, dangerous,
public anti-Americanism. That's a threat too. Remember: The very
places least responsible for climate change - and least
equipped to deal with its impacts - will be among the very
That, in a nutshell, is the argument for climate debt. The
developing world has always had plenty of reasons to be pissed off
with their northern neighbors, with our tendency to overthrow their
governments, invade their countries and pillage their natural
resources. But never before has there been an issue so politically
inflammatory as the refusal of people living in the rich world to
make even small sacrifices to avert a potential climate
catastrophe. In Bangladesh, the Maldives, Bolivia, the Arctic, our
climate pollution is directly responsible for destroying entire
ways of life - yet we keep doing it.
From outside our borders, the climate crisis doesn't look
anything like the meteors or space invaders that Todd Stern
imagined hurtling toward Earth. It looks, instead, like a long and
silent war waged by the rich against the poor. And for that,
regardless of what happens in Copenhagen, the poor will continue to
demand their rightful reparations. "This is about the rich world
taking responsibility for the damage done," says Ilana Solomon,
policy analyst for ActionAid USA, one of the groups recently
converted to the cause. "This money belongs to poor communities
affected by climate change. It is their compensation."