Thursday, December 10, 2015


Climate Justice: Does the Industrial West Owe Reparations?

As the talks in Paris entered their second, crucial week, unresolved issues that have been hanging for years of negotiations remain the sticking points. They center around climate justice, or the obligations of the rich, developed nations to the poor, developing ones. In a rather shocking “non-paper” sent to fellow rich countries before COP 21, the US urged its peers to hold firm against the demands of poor countries, for the main issue remained getting CO2 emissions down, not administering justice, which our government correctly saw as an ongoing (eternal) process, not something that could be resolved by one treaty.

It is a sad, harsh reality that certain nations face earlier climate ruin than others. The Pacific island nations, much of Africa, and Bangla Desh come immediately to mind, as do the South Indians who are being flooded as I write. An international Green Climate Fund has been created, with a goal of $100 billion for helping weaker countries adapt to climate change. As nations entered the Paris talks, this fund was less than 3% funded, though many are encouraged that some private capitalists, notably Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have committed to the process in a big way in Paris. Current U.S. commitments are paltry, dwarfed by our governments continuing huge subsidies to gas and oil interests.

I agree that firm commitments from the wealthier nations to make this fund a robust instrument of both adaptation and mitigation – as in the accord between France and India to invest $3 billion to supercharge solar energy in India – are absolutely required as part of a document that most of the world's nations could sign. And it is a major gesture, a huge shift since Copenhagen, that China has committed to contributing to this fund.

A key element in the climate justice demands of the G77 block in Paris is the historical carbon debt of the First World. It is true that the Western powers, primarily the UK and the US, have contributed most of the historical CO2 emissions. This historical carbon, as James Hansen recently pointed out, continues to represent the huge bulk of the extra CO2 burdening the carbon cycle. It persists for a long time, most of it a mere 500 years, but a quarter of it lasts essentially forever. See the sobering article in Nature.

The persistence of fossil CO2 in the atmosphere means that we must not only ramp down our emissions as fast as possible, but also find ways to pull it back out of the atmosphere (my post on fixing CO2 in soil last month outlines one pathway). So, yes, our industrial error has proved to be a mammoth one. But at the time of the industrial revolution in England, and later with the rapid industrialization of the US, we simply did not know what we were doing. The consensus was that the inventors were improving the lot of mankind. We now need to leave the platform which fossil fuels built, but we also need to recognize the many aspects of the modern world which were created by, and continue to be fueled by, oil in particular. This is part of the legacy of those who industrialized first to the rest of the world, even as we acknowledge the brave new world of new sources of energy, and new materials (see the current Economist for a fascinating look at the emerging materials universe), one which needs to replace the fossil platform as fast as possible.

In a recent wide-ranging historical overview of climate science, US science advisor John Holdren argued that scientists reporting to the President reached consensus by 1990 that the CO2 burden added by burning fossil fuels was greater than the opposing effect of industrial aerosol pollution (these aerosols, primarily sulfates, ironically hinder the warming effect of greenhouse gases by damping the amount of incoming solar radiation through re-reflection). If political leaders had accepted that scientific consensus, then any fossil-sourced emissions from that point on could be charged as culpable, witting ecological sin. That would of course include most of the cumulative emissions from China and India, as well as the continuing emissions from countries who industrialized first. The fact that the Republican Party continues to deny that climate change is human-driven is probably the greatest moral error in history, given this consensus. Even worse, Exxon scientists had reached the conclusion that fossil carbon would prove catastrophic before 1990.

But given that concerns about fossil greenhouse gases did not lead to any conclusive research until so late in the history of industrialization, I do not think that the US and the UK (plus Russia, Germany, and Japan) owe “reparations” for the historical carbon they dumped into Gaia's system. However, given the clear judgment in hindsight of the dominant role of the Anglo Atlantic partnership in the process of industrialization fueled by fossil carbon, India's argument that they and other developing nations like Indonesia should be alloted the lion's share of the remaining fossil carbon production is a convincing one – much as I would like to see all fossil carbon burning cease in the critically immediate future. China, which has developed faster than India, used to make the same argument, but air quality there, not to mention recognition at the highest levels of state of the imperative to limit global CO2 emissions, has shifted their tone (China has arguably the strongest renewable program in the world, despite the fact that it continues to use a lot of coal, though at a significantly decreasing rate).

What does make sense, which the wealthy nations continue to resist, is to fully fund the Green Climate Fund, with no more dithering. Yes, mitigation, as well as adaptation at this initial level of climate disruption is expensive, but far, far less than what would be required with disastrous BAU. The Stern Review remains the primary source clearly documenting this. At the halfway point in negotiations, it looks as if the wealthy nations will acknowledge some historical responsibility, but only if the issue is never brought up again. That feels like they are ramming through their will once again, and such a demand is unfair, if one looks at it in terms of value statements about justice and responsibility.

Nevertheless, I think the international community needs to put the idea of “reparations” behind it. The West correctly sees that setting any kind of precedent for that opens the door to being given a bill for any future disasters in the Third World, no matter what their cause. Though I have enormous sympathy for those who are on the frontlines of climate disruption, it is too much to expect a blank check accepting blanket responsibilities from the heirs of some innovative tinkerers in the coal country of England 300 years ago.

As for justice, Exxon should be heavily prosecuted for their willful climate change denial, the lynchpin in a strategy previously set by the tobacco industry, which also cynically denied their own internal research. Except that it is not just individual smokers killing themselves in the instance of strategically motivated climate denial, but ecocide. Reparations to extinct species are impossible.

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