The United States is, per capita, both the world's wealthiest and most polluting nation. But when it comes to facing its responsibility for the calamity of climate change caused in large part by its outsized emissions, many are left asking: Where's the climate justice?
The idea of "climate justice"—which transfers the well-known "make the polluter pay" principle to the issue of global warming—is that the wealthiest and most industrially advanced nations have also generated the most emissions and thus should contribute the most financially to the mitigation and reparation funds needed to offset the negative impacts of climate change.
However, as the idea of who should pay and how much has once again taken center stage at the UN climate talks in Warsaw, a leaked copy of an official briefing document on Wednesday confirms that the United States is attempting to shirk their "moral and legal responsibility" of making payments to an international relief fund.
According to the Guardian:
US officials fear that international climate change talks will become focused on payouts for damage caused by extreme weather events exacerbated by global warming, such as the category 5 Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines last week killing thousands of people and causing what is expected to be billions of pounds of damage.
An official US briefing document obtained by the Guardian reveals that the country is worried the UN negotiations, currently under way in Warsaw, will "focus increasingly on blame and liability" and poor nations will be "seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts".
Such redress was a hot-button issue at COP18 in Doha, Qatar where U.S. representatives lined up against those from the global South whose repeated calls for climate justice in the form of "climate finance" have thus far gone unanswered.
"It is not aid or charity," writes Brandon Wu, Senior Policy Analyst with Action Aid, "it is a moral and legal responsibility."
"While the global North holds only about 15 percent of the global population, it has created the vast majority of historical climate emissions—allowing it to accumulate 80 percent of the world’s wealth," writes Aura Bogada at The Nation. "The global South is home to about 85 percent of the world’s peoples, has created only 30 percent of historical climate emissions, and has amassed only 20 percent of the world’s wealth."
"Carbon emissions," explains the New York Times Economix blog, "are correlated with income. The Philippines emits 0.9 metric tons of carbon per capita. The United States emits 17.6."
In a cruel twist of fate, those countries who have amassed the least amount of wealth—primarily those in lower latitudes—and have contributed the least to climate change are the most exposed to the adverse effects of changing weather patterns and have the least amount of resources with which to cope and adapt, as acknowledged by the World Bank in a report put forth last year.
One solution put forth, which the United States fought aggressively at COP18, is for an international "loss and damage mechanism" to support these communities in the face of adverse climate impacts such as reduced crop production or major infrastructure repair.
"If loss and damage isn't addressed in Warsaw then it sends a signal to the world that some countries do not take climate change seriously," said Juan Hoffmaister, lead negotiator for G77+China, which includes most African and some Latin American countries.
"We can't only rely on the ad hoc humanitarian aid given the reality that major climate-related disasters are becoming the new normal," he added.
The debate over fiscal obligation has been made all the more relevant as international aid has begun to trickle in to the Philippines, which has experienced widespread devastation as a result of Super Typhoon Haiyan.
Many observers of the talks say that the United States and other developed nations will try to duck their "climate finance" obligations by instead promoting the concept of 'private climate finance,' where any climate-friendly investment made by the private sector would count towards these agreed-upon public sector contributions.
"No one is arguing against making private-sector activity more climate friendly. But that's what policy change and regulation is for," says Wu.
However, he notes that by substituting this "broader debate about climate-friendly investment" with the more specific goal of an international climate fund, "rich country governments remove crucial concepts like historical responsibility, polluter pays, and geopolitical fairness (in the context of historically unjust North-South relations) from the conversation."