Climate debt as a subversive political strategy

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The notion of climate debt goes to the heart of climate change politics. It raises the central question of historical responsibility and who owes whom for what.  And it turns traditional rich-poor relations upside down.

by Nicola Bullard

Perhaps without fully realising either the meaning or the implications, progressive movements have gravitated around the slogan of “climate debt” as a way into the complex world of climate negotiations.

It is easy to understand why: debt is simple concept and in a just world, debts should be paid. But — more that that — the notion of climate debt goes to the heart of climate change politics. It raises the central question of historical responsibility and who owes whom for what. And by redefining “debt” as a systemic issue rather than a financial problem, it turns traditional rich-poor relations upside down. Usually it is the rich who are the creditors, demanding payment from the poor, but climate debt reverses that: it is now the poor and the marginalised – the Global South — who are calling in their debts, not for personal gain but for the future of humanity and Mother Earth.

As such, climate debt is a powerful idea that links issues, constituencies and strategies, with the added attraction of using simple language as a Trojan horse for complex and potentially subversive ideas. But without a clear idea of what “we” mean by climate debt, there is always the risk that the principles and ideas underpinning it will be coopted and diluted. Perhaps there is no definitive definition of climate debt, but as social justice movements and activists, it is useful to have a common vision of what we mean, and what we are asking for.

What is climate debt?

The concept of ecological debt has been around for some years. Ecuador’s Accion Ecologica talks about ecological debt as “the debt accumulated by the Northern industrial countries towards the countries and peoples of the South on account of resource plundering, environmental damages, and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases.”

In accounting terms, climate debt is just one line item in the much larger balance sheet of ecological debt, but it can be broken down into understandable and measurable parts.

One part of the climate debt relates to the impacts of the excessive emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming: extreme and frequent climate events, floods, droughts, inundations, storms, loss of arable land and biodiversity, disease, landlessness, migration, poverty, and much more. In UN terms, these very real human impacts are sanitised and lumped together under “adaptation” costs.

A second element of the climate debt is the cost of reorganising societies and economies in such a way that greenhouse gas emissions are radically reduced: this is called mitigation, and it touches almost every aspect of human activity from agriculture, energy and transport through to how cities are organised, consumption patterns and global trade. For the Bolivian government, this is equivalent to a “development debt” which would be compensated by ensuring that all people have access to basic services and that all countries are sufficiently industrialised to ensure their independence.

A third part of the debt is more difficult to calculate – some call it the emissions debt. It refers to the fact that rich countries have used up most of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, leaving no “atmospheric space” for the South to “grow.” Given that there is a very high correlation between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions in the current technological context, this means that developing countries are effectively being told that they must limit their economic growth. The only way to compensate this debt is for the rich countries to drastically reduce their own emissions.

The Bolivian government includes two other items in the climate debt calculation. In addition to the adaptation, mitigation and emissions debt, they identify a “migration debt” which would be compensated by dropping restrictive migration practices and treating all humans with dignity, and finally, the debt to Mother Earth.

According to the Bolivian government, this debt is “impossible to compensate completely, because the atrocities committed by humanity have been too terrible. However, the minimum compensation of this debt consists of recognising the damage done, and adopting a United Nations Declaration on the Mother Earth’s Rights, to ensure that the same abuses will never be repeated in future.” Considering all these components, the debt owed by the rich to the poor is unmeasurable.

Who is responsible for climate debt?

This question is at the heart of the UNFCCC negotiations, for behind the technical language, it’s all about money and economic interests. That is why the US conjured up the Copenhagen Accord during the COP15 – to redefine who is responsible and thus avoid paying its dues.

The current state of play is that the rich countries – and especially those who have the highest cumulative historical emissions – are simply not willing to pay their debt. Having accumulated wealth and security on the backs of the poor, through the destruction of nature and the extraction of resources, the rich European countries, the US, Japan, Australia and Canada are refusing to pay the bill, both in terms of the actual costs of mitigation and adaptation, but also in terms of changing their own profligate consumption.

Not only are they refusing to reduce their own emissions – thus pushing the burden of reduction onto others – they are also trying to shift the blame to developing countries such as China, Brazil and Indian whose current emissions are growing at a rapid rate.

Can the debt be paid ?

Although certain aspects of the debt can be counted and calculated – for example, the costs of clean technology, restoring devastated forests, shifting to sustainable agriculture, or building climate ready infrastructure, the real debt cannot be calculated. It is much more than a number or money ; climate debt symbolises over 500 years of unequal relations between North and South, between rich and poor, between exploiters and exploited.

Climate debt is also a measure of the complete folly of capitalism – whether it’s free market or state-run – as a model for managing human society and the earth’s ecosystems. Ultimately, the only way that the debt can be repaid is by ensuring that the historic relations of inequality are broken once and for all and that no “new” debt will accumulate. This requires system change, both in the North and in the South. That’s why climate debt is such a subversive idea.

Nicola Bullard is a senior associate with Focus on the Global South. This article was published April 22 on Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières