Opinion

What climate debt does the north owe the south?


Published : 07 Dec 2022 08:24 PM

To keep the planet from overheating, there’s just so much more carbon that humans can pump into the atmosphere. From the onset of the Industrial Revolution until today, humanity has used up approximately 83 percent of its “carbon budget”—the amount of carbon the atmosphere can absorb and not exceed the Paris climate agreement’s aspirational goal of a 1.5C degree increase in global temperatures since the pre-industrial era. At the current rate of emissions, the budget will be used up within the next decade.

Equally troubling has been the distribution of those carbon emissions. “With just below 20 percent of the world population, the Global North has overconsumed 70 percent of the historic carbon budget,” notes Meena Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia and head of programs at Third World Network, at a Global Just Transition webinar. “Those who became rich in a world unfettered in terms of emitting greenhouse gasses are responsible for much of the destruction we’re facing today.”

Because of this large disparity in emissions and in wealth earned alongside those emissions, the rich countries of the north owe the poorer countries a kind of “climate debt.” Now, when carbon emissions have to be controlled severely, the north has a historic responsibility to help the south make its own transition to a post-fossil-fuel future.

This responsibility is not simply a function of carbon emissions. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels by the Global North during and after the Industrial Revolution went hand in hand with an ongoing process of looting the Global South. The colonial era established an unequal power balance between the north and south, which has continued into the post-independence era. The Global South continues to supply the Global North with natural resources, increasingly to support a “clean energy” transition. The countries of the Global South also remain locked into various forms of debt servitude to the financial institutions of the Global North.

“We need to talk about all of these external debts—foreign, financial—which involve colonialism, the exploitation of labor, racism, and patriarchy,” observes Alberto Acosta, Ecuador’s former minister of energy and mining. “These ways of expropriating nature have been from the beginning instruments of domination over the Third World or developing countries or poor countries. These countries on the periphery have been historically bled out.”

Avoiding the worst-case scenarios of climate change will require money: a lot of it. “Regardless of how we frame the discussion—climate debt, climate reparations, climate fair share—the challenges are immense,” points out Tom Athanasiou, co-founder of EcoEquity. “There is no conventional politics that can properly address both the climate crisis and the inequality crisis. The science tells us that we have to phase out fossil fuels globally in only a few decades. That means that the countries of the Global South must rapidly decarbonize even while they are still poor, even if they have fossil resources they hope to extract and sell for development.”

But where will this money come from and what political structures are necessary to rectify the imbalance of power and wealth between the north and south?

The Stakes

In 2021, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that 85 percent of the world’s population had been affected by climate change. This year, unprecedented monsoon rains late this summer put one-third of Pakistan under water. Drought has brought high levels of malnutrition to East Africa, while the deforestation of the Amazon has happened at a record pace in the first six months of 2022. Meanwhile, the smaller islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans are getting smaller every day. Among other climate disasters in the north, forest fires have devastated Russia, Europe, and the United States.

“If you look at recent IPCC reports, the window for adjusting to climate change is fast closing,” Meena Raman says. “This is not only the window for emission reduction but also the window for adaptation. We are already in the era of loss and damage. Real suffering is happening around the world: there’s been flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria, and in the rich world too.”

“The scientists are close to panic,” Tom Athanasiou reports. “It’s possible that the global temperature could very briefly hit the 1.5-degree limit in only two years. At the end of this decade, it will likely be at 1.5 degrees, or very close. By that point, with conditions getting very, very dangerous, political dynamics will have changed.  It’s inevitable.  Of course we don’t know how they will have changed.”

A shift in the political dynamics might also result from disruptions that take place beyond national borders, such as glacial melt in the Antarctic. The Thwaites glacier, nicknamed the “doomsday glacier” for the impact its melting will cause around the world, is now shrinking at twice the rate it did over the previous decade. “When the Thwaites glacier goes and sea level everywhere rises, will this change the political dynamics?” Athanasiou asks. “Does radical change that previously was completely off the agenda find its way on the agenda in a new way? People know that neoliberal economics have got to go. It’s not just street-fighting people. Everyone knows. So, what new channels of cooperation, resistance, and transformation does this open up?”

These recent disasters are the culmination not just of climate change but of a maladaptive human philosophy toward nature. “This climate collapse reflects the reality of anthropocentrism,” observes Alberto Acosta. “But this disequilibrium of the planet is not the result of all humans, but of privileged humans exercising their consumerism. It’s the history of capitalism, a history of voracity for accumulation that affects billions of people on earth, especially women and indigenous communities.”

In part because of the effects of this disequilibrium—the floods, droughts, intensified hurricanes—humans have finally begun to address climate change, but not with the requisite urgency or resources. So, for instance, the Paris agreement in 2014 established targets for the reduction of carbon emissions, but national efforts towards these targets are voluntary. Similarly, the more recent pledges by countries to reach “net zero” by 2050 are not enforced by any international authority.

“Net zero by 2050 is too little, too late,” Raman points out. “The developed world should have gotten to real zero by now. And because of the war in Ukraine, they’ve even backtracked to increasing their use of fossil fuel, with Germany for instance turning back to coal.” Alberto Acosta agrees that the Ukraine war has been a step backward for the climate justice movement Nuclear energy, like coal, has made a rebound. And tremendous investments have gone into armaments, he notes, at precisely the moment when they’re needed for addressing climate change.

As Tom Athanasiou points out, getting to zero by mid-century “would be hard even if we had functioning democracies and responsible leadership, and we don’t have either. In fact, a lot of very powerful people stand to lose a lot of money by phasing out the fossil fuel industry.”

Although nearly everyone in the world now experiences a byproduct of climate change, these impacts vary according to geography and wealth. “The countries with the highest climate vulnerability indexes—the countries most vulnerable to climatic destabilization, are almost all ex-colonies,” Athanasiou adds. “That tells you a lot right there.”

Alberto Acosta puts the blame squarely on colonialism. “The extraction of resources is a function of colonialism,” he says. “Consider the destruction of the Amazon to grow soybeans and export protein in the form of animal feed to the richest countries on earth. This transfer of natural resources to the Global North to feed industrial processes is done without consideration of the costs to the Global South. Meanwhile, going the other way from the Global North to the countries on the periphery is the spread of agricultural monocultures, the imposition of the most polluting industries, and the dumping of toxic wastes.”

That unequal relationship has carried over to the era of “clean energy.” The Global North’s push to reduce its dependency on fossil fuel has meant, Acosta continues, “transferring the problem to the Global South through the mining in poor countries for lithium and copper for electric cars and the destruction of tropical forests to obtain balsa wood to build more wind farms.”

Another divide, Athanasiou points out, is between different philosophies of development. In Africa, he notes, the conflict has heightened “between governments that want to develop fossil resources and civil society that want to keep those resources in the ground and launch crash program of renewable development. This conflict is sharp and visible and very different from what it would have been five years ago.”

(To be continued)


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared. Source: CounterPunch