The Long Road to International Climate Reparations
February 20, 2023
Flags of select UN members by Pinoy.

In the streets of the ritzy resort city Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, youth activists demanded change: What do we want? “Climate justice!” When do we want it? “Now!” Tried and true crowd work. But then: If we don’t get it? “Shut it down!” It was a promise to disrupt the entire gathering  if it failed to deliver more significant progress towards global climate goals. The conference in question was not an Exxon board meeting or some other ne'er-do-well climate antagonist, but the 27th annual Conference of the Parties. COP27 brought world leaders together to negotiate our shared future. Many consider the annual COP summits our last, best hope for averting climate catastrophe. Why, then, would climate activists want to shut it all down? Their message: empty promises are more dangerous than none at all. COP27 finally delivers on a long-overdue promise. But we must now organize  to see its promise realized.

Justice Delayed

The Global North does not really want to talk about climate justice. Back in 2009 the United States dismissed a motion at COP15 for wealthy nations to financially compensate Global South nations for climate damage. “I [completely] reject the notion of a debt or reparations,” said Todd Stern, then U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. The following year the U.S. again argued climate reparations were “unfair” to industrialized nations. Year after year top polluters refused accountability. 

But as the movement has strengthened, calls for climate justice have become harder to brush off. When COP26 in Glasgow ran into overtime, reparations became a serious point of discussion though no agreement was reached. Even this year’s victory was accompanied by concerted efforts to shut the conversation down. “We are really outraged,” said PACJA director Mithika Mwenda after a proposed session on Africa’s ‘special needs and circumstances’ was rejected. “[COP27] will fail millions of Africans dying unjustly from the adverse impacts of climate change and strengthen big polluters to continue ruining the planet with impunity.” Mwenda reminded reporters that the entire continent of Africa, having contributed only 4 percent of global emissions, will see temperatures rise at 1.5 times the global average. This discrepancy reflects a sobering reality, one that defines the struggle for climate justice: the climate crisis is disproportionately shouldered by countries—especially island nations and those in the Global South—who have contributed the least emissions.

Big polluters are responsible for increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters: hurricanes in the U.S. and Cuba, typhoons in Japan, drought in Brazil. And it’s often the Global South that is hardest hit. Nearly five million children are acutely malnourished in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa. A record monsoon season submerged one third of Pakistan this year. The flooding killed over 1,700 people and displaced an additional 7.9 million. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls it “climate carnage”, which is a conscious and calculated rephrase of “climate disaster”, because carnage implies a perpetrator. And there certainly are perpetrators of climate chaos: extractive industries, multinational corporations, and the nationalistic imperialism that has been so closely tied with the rapid development of Global North countries. COP27 finally addresses these disparities by establishing a loss and damage fund, whereby said perpetrators may contribute to climate adaptation in the Global South. The decision is both a landmark victory and a tempered one, a step forward in the long struggle for climate justice.

Justice Denied

Climate reparations were central to the dialogue leading up to COP27; however, the loss and damage fund was not assured until the eleventh hour, when the E.U. finally caved to the sustained and united pressure coming from the Global South. The U.S. followed shortly thereafter. Thirteen days of grueling negotiations saw key setbacks. When over 80 nations pushed for a phase-out of oil and gas, the effort was blocked by a small handful of oil and gas producing countries—including China and Saudi Arabia. The world’s current highest greenhouse contributor (China) and second-largest oil producer (Saudi Arabia) are classified as developing nations; both actively resisted contributing to reparations. But their hand was forced by the United States and European Union, who only agreed to reparations on the condition that China and other rising nations contribute too. Today’s top polluters do have an obligation to fund climate reparations. But beware of any attempt to frame climate responsibility as a function of current emissions only. The climate crisis is thanks to a cumulative buildup of greenhouse gasses over the past three centuries. Ignoring historic emissions benefits the West—especially the United States, whose relative CO2 contribution nearly doubles (12.6 to 24.5 percent) when comparing current to all-time levels—and hurts rising nations in the Middle and Far East. This is environmental imperialism. As the West seeks to increase others’ accountability, it is actively capping its own. COP27’s loss and damage agreement is a significant change in the tone of international climate discussions. However, the agreement explicitly states that climate reparations imply zero legal liability, missing  billions or even trillions in potential climate aid.

What emerges from COP27 and broader negotiations is a pattern of hypocrisy and half-measures. Nations are eager for others to pay up, but dodge or outright resist their own responsibility. The shared existential threat has been grounds not for unity, but for competitive nation-building. Hanging over the clever speeches is an ugly truth: only a handful of global North and South countries (including Costa Rica, Norway, Morocco and and the U.K.) have come even close to its 2015 emissions reductions targets. COP27 failed to deliver on climate mitigation, even as the world hurdles toward 2.1-2.9℃ of warming this century. That makes climate reparations a restitution for an ongoing crime. 

A generous view holds that top polluters could commit to voluntary reparations; a cynical one sees a promise never intended to be kept. In 2009, wealthy nations had previously pledged up to $100 billion USD in annual funding to climate mitigation and adaptation in the Global South. Under 70 percent of pledged funds were actually given, and most of that was in the form of loans, which so far has shorted vulnerable countries over $250 billion in potential climate aid. Industrialized countries of the Global North deserve no credit for new reparations until that $250 billion is delivered—delivered as grants, not loans, because loans only promote dependence and strengthen imperialism. At-risk countries already face heightened uncertainty regarding future disasters. Volatile financial support only complicates their ability to effectively allocate for climate adaptation. Without an international enforcement mechanism, shifting national politics can undermine even the best of intentions. President Biden, for example, received only 40 percent of the $2.5 billion in climate finance he petitioned from Congress last year. And with Republicans now controlling the House, it remains unclear to what extent the United States will actually finance pledged reparations. A just outcome, one that fully funds climate adaptation, is unlikely to garner the requisite political support. The Global South currently spends an annual $70 billion on climate adaptation. By 2050 that figure is expected to increase four-to-sevenfold. It is short-sighted and selfish for industrialized nations to act immune to the climate carnage building up around the world; sooner or later we will all have to pay that bill, with interest.

Justice Won

Generous, of course, does not best describe what was won during COP27. Frictional seems more appropriate. Yet the harsh resistance to climate justice is, strangely, a source of hope. Reparations weren't offered out of goodwill. They were ceded thanks to a three-decades-long effort by leaders and activists from the crisis frontlines. Some 134 countries joined together at COP27 to demand reparations, and they won. As support for climate justice continues to grow, its resistance is rendered increasingly surmountable. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” MLK preached. “It must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

And should that freedom be won, the oppressor is too often credited. Addressing COP27 President Biden praised the United States as a “global leader on climate”. U.S. theatrics aside, a handful of European nations pledged over $250 million to Loss and Damage (L&D) ahead of COP27 negotiations: $170 million from Germany, $50 million from Austria, and a combined $33.4 million from Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, and Belgium. These actions represent a shift in the conversation, one solidified at COP27: climate reparations are a moral imperative. Had an L&D fund been implemented already, countless lives would have already been saved. “The announcement offers hope to vulnerable communities all over the world”, says Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s minister for climate change. Top polluters can meet the moment by ramping down emissions, delivering on prior funding pledges, and fully covering adaptation expenses in climate-vulnerable regions. But the Global South isn’t just waiting on some foreign promise. They are continuing to lead the charge for climate justice in all spaces - from the grassroots to the closed doors of COP.

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