Climate Debt, Climate Rage, and the Wealth of Nations
Author: Mathew Mituma
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/14/2010
In environmental activism, climate debt is premised on the idea that wealthy nations should pay developing nations for problems arising from global warming “for over-consuming a shared resource that belongs fairly and equally to all people.” As an emerging discourse, Nicola Bullard defines it as “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 the words of Naomi Klein, “climate debt represents the most controversial among the newest ideas on how to manage this ever growing crisis. It is about who pays the bill.” Climate rage on the other hand is premised on the growing antagonism between rich and poor nations on who is responsible for what portion of global warming. In short, it is about the cruel contrast between developed and developing nations, between the cause and effect of global warming.
Climate change and the debate on reparations for the effects of global warming therefore becomes a contested site of environmental discourse. In exploring this debate, I will review some of the recent research in this area and identify key findings that may be useful in advancing our understanding of this discourse.
I intend to examine trends, suggestions and examples that explain some of the pitfalls facing developing nations on their road to industrialization and wealth creation in relation to climate change. Specifically, I will explore the overlap between climate debt, climate rage, global warming and their relationship to economic advancement and further analyze the thesis that global warming causes changes in the environment that lead to conflict over resources because “in many places, a warmer world will lead to greater drought; in others, more extensive melting of glaciers will cause flooding.”
To do this, I will incorporate the work and ideas of people like Naomi Klein, Nicola Bullard, Todd Stern, Jesse Jenkins, Devon Swezey, Isabel Galiana, Gustavo Esteva, Juliette Beck, Simon Buttler, and many others. As a discourse analysis, this paper takes a critical approach to the problem and tensions surrounding climate debt, climate rage and wealth of Nations.
The genesis of the term “climate debt” has given impetus to the progressive forces of environmental justice and brings with it a complex web of linkages never advanced before by the advocates of climate justice. “A paradigm shift is emerging not from politics or ideology, but from a deep fissure opening up between…the way the world does business and… the limited tolerance of the earth’s environment.”
Although it is easy to grasp the concept of debt from a capitalistic standpoint, climate debt presents a more abstract phenomenon. It takes a historical route in defining who owes who and why.
Essentially, it creates a systemic view of the problem of global warming and highlights the ecological interdependence of systems between developed and developing economies. Thus, the struggle to define climate debt in clear terms partially derives the ambiguity from the fact that it is an anti-thesis of the traditional capitalistic view of debt where the creditors ask for repayments from their debtors; usually the rich seeking repayment of debt from the poor but in climate debt, the reverse is true. The poor are asking the rich to pay up.
Climate debt subverts the traditional view of debt and appeals for reparations by rich nations to the poor nations for climate atrocities since the industrial revolution. These atrocities are parallel to “ecoterrorism,” Wagner (2008) and ecotage, the environmental “criminal acts…(Wagner, 2008, pp25). Even more controversial is the fact that the nations of the southern hemisphere are asking for repayments, not for capitalistic or individual reasons but for moral and social reasons to save the earth, not just one person or one country but the whole earth.
This, in part, illustrates the complexity and the fluidity of the concept of climate debt. It also leads us to support the thesis that “the moral case is clear and unassailable, but by framing both the problem and the solution in financial terms, it embraces an old economy frame in which money is the defining value, power is conceded to those who control money’s creation and allocation, and the remediation of environmental damage is simply a financial issue,” or so it becomes.
Andrew Simms (2009) severally attempted to articulate the concept of ecological debt from the capitalistic mindset and as synonymous to climate debt. However, his attempts met the wrath of environmental activism because of his capitalistic approach until the emergence of David Korten’s work entitled ‘Where does the concept of ‘climate debt’ fit into a New Economy framework’ was published in the Yes! Magazine and exposed the stack contrast between the old and the new economy. This illuminated the idea that climate debt was difficult to conceive from a capitalistic standpoint but was conceivable through a historical analysis of socioeconomic and political paths of development.
Simply put the fusion of wealth of nations and climate change enabled the conceptualization of climate debt into the mainstream elite discourse. Viewed mostly as a controversial call by poor countries of southern hemisphere to their rich brothers of the northern hemisphere, a contest of how and why there should be any reparations rages.
The result has been a stand-off between the two even though it is clear that environmental crimes have been committed which adversely affects the environment, causing excessive and reiterative climate ramifications. These crimes are characterized by climate induced poverty, disease, animal and human migrations, animal-human conflict, raging storms, drying rivers, reduced coastlines due to rising sea levels, untold stress and losses of arable land, ecology and biodiversity, landlessness, floods droughts etc.
Climate debt advocates therefore argue that first; rich nations need to help poor nations to cope with natural catastrophes arising from global warming and second; rich nations should help developing nations to transition to clean energy without going through the linear trajectory of industrialization that involves development through usage of ‘dirty energy’ like coal and oil.
The cost of paying for this transition is what the climate debt movement famously refers to as “adaptation cost”. This, in sum is the underlying cause of disagreements between rich and poor nations at the altar of climate debt and thus my thesis that global warming is a contested site of environmental discourse.
Championed by Bolivia, Climate debt as a progressive movement views climate debt as a development debt. Climate debt activists argue that climate debt should be paid back by rich nations in the fashion of funding green projects to ensure that all countries are at the same level of development and industrialization. The aim is to have access to basic services to people, thus ensuring economic, political and social independence.
What makes the concept of climate debt even more elusive and hypothetical is the fact it is difficult to calculate. The basic premise is that rich nations have been sending lethal gases to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and therefore are responsible for the biggest chunk of carbon emission to the ozone layer. However, the figures are not exact. Variations exist from the data available so far. Even though the truth is that we have over-used the atmospheric space to the point of devastation and reduced its capacity to absorb the green house emissions, leaving little or no space for more carbon emissions, skeptics do not think it is mathematically provable, thus, the raging debate and the crisis of climate debt because the developing nations have no space to deposit their green house gasses on their road to industrialization.
To transition, developing nations are therefore calling for help in making this technological leap to industrialization.
The alternative to technological leap rhetorically brings to the fore, one of the most contentious propositions by countries of the northern hemisphere. The rich nations of the north have ironically been arguing that the poor nations must also cut or reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere too. The question for those in the south has been, how much of the existing carbon have they emitted to the atmosphere. This demand by wealthy nations effectively limits the industrial development of the south and presents a contest and has sparked a raging climate war between the two economic spheres.
In my view, this proposition is unfeasible at this point for two reasons: first, the developing nations have a moral and social, economic and political obligation to develop in order to uplift the standards of their people, failure in which their economic and technological development will be limited or stunted, causing untold misery to their people and environment; and two; there is need for them to progressively claim their share of the atmospheric space either through industrialization or compensation for not using it since it. It is apparent that there is a high correlation between economic growth, industrial development and exhalation of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Also central to the concept of climate debt is the fact that developing nations will more adversely experience the fangs of climate change in terms of hardships caused by global warming. To this end, people and animals will tend to migrate to areas that are more habitable. They have two choices: move to cooler and habitable areas, higher ground levels (natural or mechanized) or migrate to the more industrialized economies to cope with the effects of climate change. As this happens, across and over the border migrations will take place between different people and other species as they constantly look for better places to live.
The ecological challenge will be to balance the ecology of the new habitable areas that are likely to get overpopulated and hence depleted within a short time. In the case of people of different nations, the challenge will be to ask the host nations to drop immigration restrictions on border crossing and uphold the equality of human dignity and treat people or all origins as equals, which in my view is a challenge and illustrates a likely wave of rage.
Even more challenging will be the issue of animal-human conflict. Insects like malaria causing mosquitoes will start moving to warmer areas as temperature rises, spreading the deadly disease and killing people. In fact, “the mosquito has changed genetically in response to recent and rapid climate change.” Even reptiles will migrate from dried up rivers to land and in search of more water and “incidences of snakebites, leading to limb amputations and even death, have dramatically gone up in the last five years from 20 reported cases in 2003 to 236 last year. According to the conflict resolution warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Grace Nzale, 680 cases of snakebites that resulted in 81 deaths and 577 injuries had been reported between 2003 and June 2009.Hazard experts say this could be as a result of the warming climate which has enabled snakes to move to previously cooler habitats, clearing of forests and the worsening droughts that force the reptiles to go into people’s houses to look for water.”
More recently, “the recent outbreaks of West Nile Virus in North America are a preview of how climate change can drastically affect our well-being.” In places like Kenya and other parts of Africa, research by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) supported by the “Climate Change Adaptation for Africa programme” indicate that “global warming is to be blamed for the seven-fold increase in the malaria cases on Mount Kenya.” The Kenya Medical Research Institute also confirms that “the seven-fold increase is directly attributable to man-made climate change…and the link between climate change and malaria…arguing that…the recent outbreak of malaria around Nairobi has been caused by climate change…and the researchers have been able to directly attribute the change to a 2`C increase in the average temperature. The Kenya Medical research institute is using church meetings and local health clinics to educate people in high-altitude areas on how climate change could be leading to the spread of malaria to their area.”
It is along these lines that Bolivia and the Group of the seventy seven southern nations, (the G77) thinks that it is impossible for rich nations to fully repay the climate debt. The mere recognition of this controversial climate debt by rich nations does not constitute any tangible commitment for repayment. Instead, the G77 is pushing for commitment by developed nations to cut down the carbon emission to the ozone layer and a firm commitment that such environmental atrocities will not ever happen in future.
The dilemma of apportioning blame on who is responsible is a big one. It revolves around socio-political and economic interests of the rich and poor nations. This, in my view is where climate debt and climate rage intertwines the wealth of nations.
The thirty-second session of United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) has been trying to shed some light on this overlap of climate debt to politics and economy to “deliver the full package of operational measures that will allow developing countries to take faster, stronger action across all areas of climate change.” But even as UNFCC struggles to handle this multi-faced dinosaur of climate debt, and the maze that follows the debate, the question of who is responsible for the bill becomes evident, it is about money, and it’s about nation’s wealth.
The US, a capitalist economy and for a long time a model of true capitalism and democracy is among the biggest contenders who are against this emerging discourse of climate debt. This nation is likely to take up the biggest portion of the climate bill. The US ironically rallied behind the Copenhagen Accord in December 2009 to call for redefining who is responsible for what portion of climate damage. It technically avoided the hook for being held responsible for the biggest chunk of climate debt for the moment, hereby confirming my thesis that the concept of climate debt still remains vague and contestable depending on position of players involved in this discursive narrative.
One persistent challenge is that that global warming and the problem of climate change does not wait as different players seek for more time to discuss the problem in upscale climate conferences and take sides based on social-economic and political interests of their countries.
The status-quo indicates that rich players in this discursive narrative of climate debt do not want to pay up or to acknowledge the historical emissions since the industrial revolution. Further, they don’t concede the subsequent damage they have done to the atmosphere and the need to pay for the adaption costs to those following the same road to industrialization, even though it is evident that their accumulated wealth and financial security emanates from the benefits of industrialization and is directly correlated to climate debt at the expense of poor nations of the south. Their industrialization came through extraction of natural resources and destruction of the environment but they have put up a strong fight against any reparations and instead put stern conditions that developing nations should cut their emissions too!
The Raging debate.
So the question of who is responsible for what portion has led the climate debt advocates pointing fingers at countries of the northern hemisphere such as the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and Britain. These nations have been trying very hard, but unsuccessfully to shift the blame on climate change to developing nations like India, China and Brazil because of their increasing emissions. As such, they refuse or are not willing to change their consumption pattern to help cut down carbon emissions unless developing nations make the first move.
The tragedy is, the stand-off between these two camps does not present a solution but instead escalate the climate debt problem as more players join opposing sides and the status quo remains.
The question of whether and how climate debt can be repaid is a controversial one because there are no clear metrics of evaluation. Proponents speak in general terms such as adaptation costs, re-forestation, and technology jump into clean energy to by-pass the linear development into industrialization that involves using fossil fuel and coal, sustainable agriculture and infrastructure. The figures are in monetary terms and are not definite because of the atrocious history of the ozone destruction that predates to more than four centuries if we begin counting from the emergence of the industrial revolution and the invention of the “newcomen steam engine in 1712.”
This alone denotes the economic imbalance that has existed since then between the nations of the northern and southern hemispheres. The emergence of the steam engine in my view was the genesis of the climate debt. It was also a watershed in shaping the economic relations between the nations of the northern and southern hemisphere that was, and continues to be characterized by economic inequalities catapulted by the capitalistic tenets of western democracies. It illustrates the veracious contrast between the old and new economies on one hand and developed and developing nations on the other.
Climate experts argue that “75% of the historical carbon emissions have been produced by only 20% of the world’s population.” This in itself escalates the controversies revolving around the debate on climate debt and specifically the costs involved. The critical interpretation of such statistics leads the climate debt advocates to ask that those who belong to the 20% should shut up and just writes checks to those in the 75% camp.
Naomi Klein, a “Canadian journalist” and a staunch climate advocate holds the view that there is only one way this debt can be repaid. She argues that it is only payable by breaking the ball-and-chain economic relations between the two hemispheres. She believes that poor nations should be economically independent particularly of foreign aid. She argues that in the past, US controlled institutions like the IMF and World Bank have “rigged trade agreements that transformed Haiti from a self sufficient rice producer to importing the bulk of its rice from subsidized growers in the US. When Haiti fined American rice merchants $1.4m in 2000 for allegedly evading customs duties, the US responded by freezing $30million in aid.” Even more importantly, she urges both economic spheres to respect the notion that we share the earth’s land, water and atmosphere as equal partners.
This way, those responsible for the climate debt start and continue to pay adaptation costs to developing economies while ensuring that future carbon emission is controlled so that no one benefits at the other’s expense.
On the issue of costing for the debt owed, the nations of the northern hemisphere are at a stand-off with developing nations like Bolivia, China and India. The Main reason is developing economies have argued that they will not reduce their emissions as required by United Nations Climate Council unless the developed nations commit to cutting theirs first and agree to pay for their technology leap to clean energy.
But even as the US, a major suspect, talks about their commitment to leading the way into clean energy solutions, it has taken no affirmative action to reduce its carbon emission and the position has always been to pretend it is not responsible to any meaningful degree for the destruction of the ozone layer. Todd Stern, the chief climate negotiator for the US vehemently refuses to acknowledge the existence of such thing as climate debt and mocks the reparation proposal as unfeasible and unquantifiable. Further, even when proponents of the repayment proposal quote figures in the range of $400 billion per year, he says it is unrealistic but offers no figures from his side, thus effectively ruling out any negotiation and prospects for reparations.
The irony is that other groups in developed nations such as the European union have grasped the concept of climate debt and conceded, pledging $22billion per year beginning 2009 with the establishment of the “Copenhagen Green Climate Fund” while the US talks about pledges.
Simply put, the problem of climate debt is a wakeup call to all parties to recognize their position in the debate and start afresh. Those responsible for the ozone degradation in my thinking should be held accountable and pay up the bill.
Those asking for reparations to step up into clean energy using the climate fund should diligently use the fund strictly for that purpose; otherwise the concept of climate debt will remain a subversive for as long as this debate rages on!
This discursive narrative of climate debt elevates our discourse to the next level and also a closely contested concept of climate rage. This term emanates from the effects of this endless debate about who is responsible for the bill on the effects of climate change. Joining forces with China and India, the coalition of Latin America and African governments are increasingly becoming restless about the economic contrast that is inherent between the economies of the North and South.
This economic contrast between the two sections is illustrated by the World Bank chief economist Mr. Justin Lin who points that “about 75 to 80 percent of the damages caused by global warming will be suffered by developing countries, although they only contribute about one-third of greenhouse gases.” People from poor nations that have little or no understanding of results of climate change continue to suffer irreparable damage, giving rise to conflicts both at personal, social, national and international level.
Climate rage is expressed as a progressive thinking about how to equalize and redistribute the wealth of nations. To this end, Lidy Nacpil of Jubilee South, a green movement strongly feels that what the south “need is not something they should be begging for but something that is owed to them, because they are dealing with a crisis not of their making,” In the same tone, Sharon Looremeta, an advocate for Maasai tribes people in Kenya who have lost at least 5 million cattle to drought in recent years, puts it in even sharper terms. ‘The Maasai community does not drive 4x4s or fly off on holidays in airplanes,’ she says. ‘We have not caused climate change, yet we are the ones suffering due to damaged ecosystem. This is an injustice and should be stopped right now.”’ But from a more global perspective, Naomi Klein posits that the US failure to pay its share of climate debt “has already produced climate rage.” In Ecuador’s Yasuni National park, “home to the Waorani people…the warlike tribe often defended their homes violently: they became famous for spearing oil workers, missionaries, and illegal loggers, while the infringement on their territory by the wider world led to several epidemics and cultural upheaval.”
This is a landmark case of climate rage due to environmental invasion leading to what Chantal Mouff’e(2008) famously refers to as ethnic antagonism. Soon, we are likely to witness a spill-over and dissent will kick in and conflicts will arise in and outside of the national borders. Marine science has proved that sea levels are rising. We have increased draught and river water volume is generally decreasing every day due to changing climate, rising temperatures and effects of global warming.
This will eventually lead to decreased food production and subsequent immigrations to habitable environments where there is food and water .This presents a crisis-in-waiting because the problem of climate refugees fueled by competition for resources will escalate. We are likely to witness more civil disobedience and monkey wrenching. Because most of what I have described above, I believe, will occur in the poor nations of the southern hemisphere, these nations will also be the havens for ethnic, religious and political instability and thus, the birth of the term “climate rage”. It will be a war of poor and the rich.
Solutions to the problem of climate debt and climate rage have attracted three major broad proposals for correction in terms of adaptations costs, repayment of emission damage and finally, funding and technology for green projects by the industrialized north. However, there are specific suggestions being tabled at every opportunity and most are as varied as the players in this debate.
One such proposal was made by Ecuador’s President Mr. Rafael Correa, dubbed “the Yasuni-ITT Initiative,” premised on the idea that although there are huge deposits of oil in the Yasuni National park, he would not drill it because that would require him cutting down the trees, promoting deforestation (ecotage) and clearing the forest to drill the crude oil and usage of the oil would add more carbon to the environment (ecoterrorism).
Ecuador’s main argument has been that the Yasuni National park is “home to the largest number of tree species per hectare on the planet and also contains endangered monkeys, pumas and jaguars. The Ecuadoran government has stated that it would not extract oil within the so-called Ishpingo Tambococha-Tiputini (or ITT) oil fields located in Yasun’ if the Global North provided the Andean nation with necessary funding.” However the Ecuadorian President’s pledge was tied to a price. He argued that he needed cash from the wealthier nations of the north to finance his solar and geothermal projects; otherwise, he will dig up the crude oil.
As the international community reacted and responded to this controversial Ecuadorian proposal, Germany’s response was the most favorable. It “offered to pay $70 billion for thirteen years” beginning 2009 to keep the fossil and all the crude oil in the ground of Yasuni National park. Palaver has it that a few others are excited about it and may support it too, but certainly, USA at this point, is not part of this excitement.
Climate activists are strongly pushing for rich nations to support green initiatives such as solar projects, biomass plants and any other recycling effort or clean energy activity in developing nations such as Ecuador as a method of paying climate debt.
Even more crucial, they propose that reparations for climate debt be separated from the economic aid and World Bank should keep off the climate fund to avoid its push for puppet projects that are in most cases inclined to perpetuating the western capitalist agenda and increasing third world debt. Instead, climate fund should be left in the hands of climate friendly organizations like the United Nations Climate Convention (UNCC).
Most importantly, they also argue that these green initiatives should be funded by grants, because loans come with high repayment interests and create more debts for the poor nations. The World Bank posits that “Climate Investment Funds are a unique pair of financing instruments designed to support low-carbon and climate-resilient development through scaled-up financing.” In support of grants for development, Oxfam, an international not-for profit organization, “strongly opposes the use of loans to help communities adapt to climate impacts”
As I sum up this up-close and candid discourse analysis on climate debt and climate rage, I conclude with a contention that we should approach it from a systems standpoint. I hold the thesis that we are all partners in this ecology. Ideally, the northern and southern hemispheres are so close to each other, yet so far. Effects of ecological activities taking place in the north are equally experienced in the south. The variation is that the north has better coping mechanisms to manage effects of climate change and that the south has none or very little ability to cope.
The persistence of this disparity will stretch the ecological imbalance to the outer limits, getting the world to a tipping point and eventual collapse as is commonly argued by the apocalyptic discourse. To maintain the equilibrium-“the point at which the system has exhausted all its capacity for change”, the south need to be equally able to deal with climate change problems. And in order to equip the south to adequately deal with ramifications of global warming such as draught, disease, crop failure, human conflict, animal-human conflict etc, there is need to build synergies between rich and poor nations.
Borrowing some thoughts from Peter Senge (2004), I argue that there is need to bring sanity to this debate in order to bring in the aspect of mindfulness of other players that makes it “possible to see connections that may not have been visible before.” Simply put, “We have to rebuild the system…” otherwise this discursive narrative of climate debt will remain a contested site of environmental discourse and climate rage will mount to an unmanageable pinnacle.
Bio: Mathew Mituma is a graduate student at the Florida State University, College of Communication.