The Case for Climate Reparations
It is nearly impossible to be a citizen of the 21st century and not be aware and somehow impacted by the increasingly pressing issue of climate change. Current estimates have predicted that by the end of the century, the average global temperature will have risen 5℃, leading to the displacement of 140 million people. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by 2070 nearly three billion people may be living in areas too hot to be habitable. The consequences of climate change - ocean acidification, sea level rise, loss of agricultural land, droughts, storms, heatwaves, and countless more - are already beginning to take hold and will only continue to worsen if there isn’t a dramatic change in global climate change policies.
A variety of solutions have been put forward and enacted on the global policy level, from cutting emissions to international agreements which would conserve and protect land. In recent years, one potential solution has gained traction: climate change reparations, which aim to provide justice for the damage of climate change and provide countries with the resources to mitigate its effects.
The idea of reparations first truly entered the popular consciousness with the publication of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ 2014 cover article for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”. In this article, Coates argues that reparations in the form of land or money were critical to address the legacy of slavery. The idea of reparations, however, doesn't just apply to the case of American racial segregation. It can also be broadened to a global scope, as a way to address climate change which has disproportionately been created by wealthy countries, but whose consequences are mainly suffered by disadvantaged minority communities within these countries as well as people in poorer countries around the world.
The issue of climate change is inextricably intertwined with the existence of global inequality. Since the Industrial Revolution, the growth that has allowed certain countries to develop has been driven by fossil fuel emissions. While these industrialized nations grew leaps and bounds economically, the environmental ramifications are starting to become prevalent. The statistics are staggering: according to OECD and the World Inequality Index, 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions have been produced by the countries of the G20, and nearly half are produced by the world’s richest 10 percent.
In a horrible twist of irony, the very countries that have most contributed to climate change are the ones that can afford to mitigate its effects, while those that have contributed the least are the ones that are most affected. As climate change worsens, these social divisions will only increase. While wealthy countries and communities have the economic capacity to respond to climate-change induced natural disasters and other potential fallouts from climate change, developing countries do not.
The idea of climate reparations as a way to pay for the loss and damage incurred by climate change is an idea that has become increasingly popular, although it has also faced significant resistance from developed countries, particularly the United States. The Green Climate Fund, managed by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, pledges that developed associated countries will raise $100 billion for the green development of emergent nations by 2020. However, according to Dr. Mariama Williams of the South Center, this pledge comes nowhere close to what would be necessary to make an impact on the climate crisis. In fact, the United Nations has estimated that developing countries will need $70 billions USD per year for adaptation costs, and anywhere from $140-300 billion USD in 2030. That said, despite concerns that the $100 billion is insufficient, the countries involved have neglected this pledge, and only a fraction of that amount has been raised as of 2020. While countries such as Japan and France contributed more than their fair share(calculated based on population, past emission, and wealth), many other countries fell far short – particularly the United States. In fact, the United States has emerged as one of the developed countries which has most opposed the idea of climate change reparations.
As the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference approached, both tensions and hopes increased regarding the possibility of a new agreement on climate change reparations being struck. However, this agreement eventually fell through, in large part because of the United States’ opposition. According to Harjeet Singh of the Climate Action Network, this is because wealthy countries such as the US would view recognition of climate change damages as “opening the gates of litigation for compensation.”
Climate change reparations on an international scale would aim to address a few different aspects of the unequal impacts and causes of climate change. First of all, it would compensate for the losses and damages caused by climate change that have been suffered by developing countries. For example, many developing nations struggle to fund natural disaster relief, and support from wealthy nations such as the United States would allow them to respond to these crises without destroying the economic infrastructure that they are simultaneously trying to build. Reparations would also help fund future green development. According to a report by the United States Energy Information Administration, developing countries are on track to be consuming 65% of the world’s energy by 2050. A large portion of this growth will be concentrated in India, and such a dramatic increase could cause a catastrophe. In light of this, it is more pressing than ever to provide developing countries with the funds to transition to green energy.
There is, of course, the practical question of how to best administer climate change reparations. Mimi Sheller, dean of The Global School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has suggested the creation of an “international compensation commission” which would mediate the exchange of reparations. This could also be done through an existing international institute, such as the UN or The Green Climate Fund.
Climate change reparations are a way to address the injustice of the past while also providing for a more green and equitable future. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his essay “The Case for Reparations”, "It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us." While developed countries may have made progress in addressing fossil fuel emissions in recent years, there is still an imbalance which continues to feed inequality and human suffering as climate change worsens. Climate change reparations have been and remain a controversial proposal, and reparations at this scale have never been done before in global history. However, as the world continues to be rocked by the effects of climate change, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our current political solutions and frameworks have simply not been enough. It is time to try a new solution.
1. “The Fight for Reparations Cannot Ignore Climate Change.” Boston Review, 3 Feb. 2022, https://bostonreview.net/articles/the-fight-for-reparations-cannot-ignore-climate-change/.
2. McCarthy, Joe. “Why Are Reparations Essential for Climate Justice?” Global Citizen, Global Citizen, 4 Feb. 2022, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/reparations-for-climate-justice-olufemi-taiwo/.
3. Person, and Kate Abnett. “Analysis: Who Pays? UN Climate Report Reignites Global Fight for Compensation.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 Mar. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/who-pays-un-climate-report-reignites-global-fight-compensation-2022-03-01/.
4. Sengupta, Somini. “Calls for Climate Reparations Reach Boiling Point in Glasgow Talks.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Nov. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/11/climate/climate-glasgow-cop26-loss-damage.html.
5. Timperley, Jocelyn. “How Can People Harmed by Climate Change Be Compensated?” Wired, Conde Nast, 16 Dec. 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/climate-change-compensation/.
6. Táíwò Olúfẹ́mi O., and Beba Cibralic. “The Case for Climate Reparations.” Foreign Policy, 10 Oct. 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/10/case-for-climate-reparations-crisis-migration-refugees-inequality/.