1. The idea that wealthy, industrialized nations should pay to mitigate the climate emergency, which they caused and which disproportionately affects poorer countries.
What do you mean, “which they caused”?
The United States today accounts for just 4% of the total global population but has emitted a full 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution. Just a handful of countries — the United States, Canada, Russia, the United Kingdom and those in the European Union — account for about 56% of all carbon emissions despite making up only 13% of the global population. That’s roughly the population of the entire continent of Africa, which accounts for only 3% of cumulative carbon emissions.
And “disproportionately affects poorer countries”?
Yep! Climate change will affect everyone, but much of the worst damage will fall upon the most vulnerable. Think about the island nations going underwater, drought and crop failures in North and West Africa, and the devastating floods and landslides in Pakistan in 2022. Yet, in a perverse injustice, these Global South nations are least responsible for the crisis.
But is this really a problem we can throw money at?
In 2009, rich nations pledged an underwhelming $100 billion annually to help poorer countries, which still hasn’t been met. That money could go to disaster relief, adaptation efforts and the global transition to clean energy. Another idea is to cancel the debt poor nations “owe,” so Global South governments could fund sustainable development rather than interest payments.
Is it all just about money, then?
Rich nations could begin to “pay off” their carbon debt in a number of ways, such as opening their borders and offering a home to migrants displaced by climate change. Another would be to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, through “natural” means such as reforestation, as well as (if and when the technology is scalable) “direct air capture” machines.
Political philosopher Olúfemi O.Táíwò argues that, because the crisis was largely created by unjust political and economic systems that put profit over community, any attempt at repair must aim to transform these same systems. Unless resources are distributed fairly and people have democratic control over their lives, any short-term reparations policy will eventually be undone.
This is part of “The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of climate reparations, see Puerto Rico and Why Climate Reparations Must Know No Borders, The Fate of the Planet Rests on Dethroning the IMF and World Bank, and “Colonizing the Atmosphere”: How Rich, Western Nations Drive the Climate Crisis.
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