Who bears responsibility for the climate crisis
It is no secret that globally, the richest 10% are responsible for nearly 52% of the total emissions driving our climate crisis. 2,153 billionaires hoard more wealth than 60% of humanity. In a world where it is estimated that 120 million people could fall under the $1.90-a-day poverty line, surely the responsibility falls on the rich to redistribute wealth and push forward climate action. While they contribute most to emissions, they are unfairly insulated from the consequences of escalating impacts, as they often have access to transport, multiple homes, and even protective bunkers. In contrast, over 3 billion people (roughly 50% of humanity) live on less than £4 per day, create about 7% of emissions, and have little resources with which to prepare them for health, climate, environmental or economic shocks. The richest 10% of the world population live in every continent; however, around half the emissions of the richest 10% of people are associated with the consumption of people in the minority Global North.
The US, UK, Canada, EU and Russia are responsible for 55% of cumulative emissions, despite only representing about 11% of humanity. To this day, the average person in the US, Canada, and Australia emits roughly fifty times more CO2 than someone in Mozambique. The average person in Britain emits more carbon in the first two weeks of a year than the average per capita emissions than Rwanda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Guinea and Burkina Faso combined.
The countries least responsible for climate change impacts are the countries with the biggest limitations to respond to the scale of the crisis already in motion. This is often a result of odious debts with catastrophic conditions which straitjacket countries’ opportunities to increase health, education, and housing provision. Countries in the Global South have been forced to welcome corporations in hope that jobs will be created, and taxes paid, but many industries exploit tax havens, pay workers poorly, and cause costly environmental degradation.
These power imbalances are rooted in ongoing economic and political projects, namely slavery and colonialism. A country’s history of having been colonised continues to be indicative of per capita levels of poverty. Poverty diminishes the capacity of countries to respond to the effects of climate change in a way that protects people and prevents future generations from experiencing accelerating impacts.
Colonial profits helped fund an era of fossil fuelled development in the majority global north. Reparations have never been paid to colonised countries, communities, enslaved peoples, indentured servants, or families of survivors.
Wealth flows: from South to North
At the same time, countries in the Global South are already experiencing billions of dollars in damage, and this is likely to increase to between $290-580 billion within the next nine years. The cost of transformation towards sustainable energy, food, housing and transport is estimated to be between $1.6-3.8 trillion, and for adjustments in light of impacts to be around $180 billion a year between 2020 and 2030. Yet, this pales in comparison both to the trillions the countries give to harmful industries every year through subsidies and state aid, and the trillions more that banks and asset managers give for fossil fuel infrastructure projects. And, of course, money should not factor into calculations on human life, oceans, and biodiversity. We have the opportunity to take action that could prevent 153 million premature deaths from air pollution worldwide by 2100, and protect two billion people from food stress, water stress, heat stress, severe drought, and displacement. We have the money, and the technology. The era of excuses and injustices must end.
Injustice in Senegal
Senegal is one example of unjust North-South dynamics that emulate the incongruous balance of climate change and financial freedom, deepening local hardship. Economically, limited access to public services and adequate wages is exacerbated by a government inundated with debt repayments, tax evasion and capital flight.
Just over 25 per cent of Senegal’s GDP goes towards servicing external public debt (which enriches financial actors) while between 2015 and 2017, education funding dropped by 11.76 per cent, penalising children least responsible and most exposed to climate harms. In addition, loan conditionalities and subsequent austerity policies have forced privatisation of state-owned enterprises, leading to overall cuts in public spending by 40 per cent. Women are particularly impacted as main users of and workers in public service sectors, with the added burden of having their unpaid care work expected rather than sufficiently supported. Nearly half of Senegal’s population is in poverty and chronic malnutrition affects 17 per cent of children under the age of five.
In order to counter these economic depressions, Senegal opened itself up to unsustainable agricultural practices that deepen the climate crisis and displace local communities many of whom rely on smallholder agriculture and pastoralism. Erratic rainfall, rising sea levels and encroaching saltwater have destroyed swathes of farmland on Senegal’s Baout island while four droughts in the past ten years have left thousands hungry.
Devastatingly, Senegal is also relying on significant growth in oil and gas production, which – despite creating few local jobs – the World Bank sees as crucial in Senegal’s Covid-19 recovery with “oil and gas is part of the future of the country”. The key beneficiaries will be the Australia, US and British companies vying for access.
After hundreds of years of exploiting the Global South, the largest polluting companies and governments must take responsibility. That must include regulating banks that are funding the climate crisis and making the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries disproportionately responsible for emissions at the centre of paying for a radical just transition.
Without addressing the root causes that keep communities in the Global South on the threshold of climate-economic-health disasters, calling for enhanced public climate financing from developed countries most responsible is insufficient. Meaningful climate reparations require systems change to reckon with colonial pasts and gives frontline communities freedom to fight climate change, Covid-19 and precarity in the present.
In movements around the world there is a growing chorus of demands for climate reparations – seeking repair from those countries who have caused and perpetuated harm. Forms of reparation have included apologies, compensation, commemorations, promises or legislative changes to stop the harms, and commitments as well as policies to ensure they are never repeated. Calls for reparation include those affected by slavery, torture, genocide, apartheid, colonialism, war, and more.
The case for reparations
Climate reparations acknowledges that ways of trading, our relationships to one another and the natural world, and our social relationships all changed irrevocably under colonialism. These histories set us on a trajectory that led to colonisers both being responsible for the devastation wrought by brutal colonial practices like slavery, and disproportionately for the greenhouse gas emissions driving unprecedented floods, storms, droughts, disease spread and more. At its core, climate reparations is about coming together to imagine how to repair these injustices.
Within the UN climate change negotiations, countries on the front lines have been demanding equity for decades. They have fought for a fair approach which would see those countries that contributed most to the climate crisis decarbonise first, and provide finance to others. And more recently, they have fought for measures to address ‘loss and damage’ from those countries in the global north that are most responsible. These promises were hard won but global north governments have thus far failed to deliver on them.
But loss and damage finance is only a small part of the broader vision for climate justice. Reparations can’t be limited to writing a cheque – we must transform the systems that oppress us in the first place. We must move away from our current extractive economic model which exploits people and the natural world for profit; away from colonial borders and racist immigration policy; away from the theft of land from indigenous people and subsistence farmers.
The call for climate reparations is about making those who did the most to cause the climate crisis take responsibility for their impacts. Countries in the Global South have contributed the least to cause the climate crisis, yet are experiencing the worst impacts of climate breakdown, from economic damages to the loss of people’s lands and cultures.
By climate reparations, we mean that countries must stop doing harm, by rapidly cutting their carbon emissions; repair harm, by providing technology and finance to support people around the world to adapt to the crisis; and compensate for harm that cannot be repaired, via payments to Global South countries for loss and damage.
The UN Environment Programme’s Adaptation Gap Report (2022) conservatively estimates that around $500 billion a year is needed for climate adaptation measures alone.
We envision a world in which communities have the agency to define what well-being means for them in line with our planet’s available resources. Our struggles are all connected, and true repair can only be achieved when we build power together to fight injustice.