One of the most common cliches western politicians like to use to describe the climate crisis is: “We are all in this together”. But this seemingly harmless platitude all too often conceals a dangerous lie.
Actually, on a global scale, we’re not all in this together. Of course, global warming will impact everywhere, but it won’t affect every place in the same way.
Climate change has mostly been caused by the past emissions of the rich countries, which are best able to adapt to global warming in the short term. And its disastrous impacts will be felt most in the poorest nations that did least to cause the problem.
The “we’re all in this together” mantra is often used by the rich nations to avoid their full responsibility to curb emissions.
It erases the differences between the villains and the victims, assuming big polluters have no more obligation than anyone else to clean up the mess they have created.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd typified this approach in his speech to the December Copenhagen climate summit. He said: “The truth is that unless we all act together, because we are all in this together, there will be little prospect of development because the planet will no longer sustain development.”
It sounded very pious and moral, but at best it was a half-truth — the other half was deception. Australian and other rich nations at Copenhagen pushed to remove the most progressive aspect of the Kyoto protocol, which said the big polluters had to cut emissions quickest.
But an alternative approach is winning support among climate campaigners worldwide. The concept of climate debt rests on the fact that no solution to climate change is possible unless it also guarantees justice and social equality.
It asserts that the wasteful, energy-intensive development of the rich countries has deprived the poor countries of their share of “atmospheric space”. For over-using the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, the rich world is in debt to the poor world.
It’s fitting that the notion of climate debt reverses the normal debt relationship between the First and Third worlds. For decades, rich world governments and banks have insisted poor countries repay high-interest loans on time, regardless of the dreadful social outcomes.
When any country has defaulted on its repayments, powerful creditors such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank step in with privatisation programs and other neoliberal measures. Such programs have benefited Western corporations, while worsening poverty for people in the global South.
Now, it’s the poor countries that are demanding repayment. And this time the motivation is not financial gain but survival. It’s a big responsibility of climate activists in the global North to support this call.
April’s World People’s Climate Summit held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was a grassroots response to the failed Copenhagen summit. Its final declaration said the recognition and repayment of the climate debt by the rich countries was “the basis for a just, effective, and scientific solution to climate change”.
The conference identified five separate aspects of climate debt.
The first was the “emissions debt”. The Cochabamba summit said repayment of the emissions debt requires rich countries to: “Restore to developing countries the atmospheric space that is occupied by their greenhouse gas emissions. This implies the decolonisation of the atmosphere through the reduction and absorption of their emissions.”
For big polluters like Australia, this means the first step in repaying the climate debt is to stop making it bigger. It must make sharp cuts in emissions rapidly, thus allowing more space for the global South to develop.
The second aspect was the “development debt”: if poor countries are to develop, the First World must pay for the costs and transfer of clean energy and medical technology. This implies a challenge to intellectual property rights, which allow First World corporations to claim much-needed technologies as private property.
A third aspect identified was the “adaptation debt”: it is already too late to prevent the dangerous effects of global warming completely. Such effects include the loss of fresh water, and droughts, floods, rising sea levels, lower crop yields and more extreme weather events.
So, as well as sharp emissions cuts, rich countries must commit to protect people in poor countries from the climate change they have caused.
It’s important to be aware that adaptation debt is very different to concept of “climate aid”. The problem with the (small amounts of) climate aid offered by rich nations such as the US and Australia is that it has been presented as alternative to sharp emissions cuts. This is unacceptable.
Financial compensation is a part of repaying the adaptation debt, but the Cochabamba conference stressed it also included “providing the means to prevent, minimise, and deal with damages arising from [the rich world’s] excessive emissions”.
It also said: “The focus must not be only on financial compensation, but also on restorative justice, understood as the restitution of integrity to our Mother Earth and all its beings.”
Some in the rich world have said cutting immigration to rich countries is a climate-friendly policy. The argument rests on the belief that each immigrant has a higher carbon footprint once they move to a higher polluting country. Recently, even climate deniers such as Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott have endorsed immigration cuts on supposed environmental grounds.
But the summit insisted a real response to climate change would have rich countries accepting more immigrants, not less.
To repay the “migration debt”, the rich nations must “assume responsibility for the hundreds of millions of people that will be forced to migrate due to the climate change caused by these countries, and eliminate their restrictive immigration policies, offering migrants a decent life with full human rights guarantees in their countries.”
The final aspect of climate debt was a broader “debt to Mother Earth”, repayment of which included “adopting and implementing the United Nations Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth” that was proposed at the summit.
Taken together, the concept of climate debt presents a radical challenge to the pro-market responses to climate change favoured by governments in the North — responses that will only make the problem worse.
The summit’s climate debt working group concluded that fighting for the repayment of the climate debt “provides a means by which all peoples — particularly those who are mainly responsible for causing climate change and with the capacity to correct it — can honour their historical and current responsibilities, as part of a common effort to address a common cause.
“Ultimately, the compensation of climate debt is about keeping all of us safe.”