The concept of climate debt is strongly rooted in the climate justice movement.
In what has now become an annual summer tradition, people from all over Europe packed their bags for a pleasant stay in a... coal mine. Near Cologne, at the Ende Gëlande action, thousands stormed and occupied Europe’s largest single source of CO2 emissions for the third year in a row. With some 6,000 participants, the 2017 event is the biggest yet.
To understand why scientists like the eminent professor Joan Martinez Alier support such actions, let’s get our facts straight. While world leaders had 22 UN meetings to tackle the climate crisis since 1995, annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels rose from 6000 to 10000 million metric tons of carbon.
As a result, current policies point to 3.6°C or 4.1°C warming by 2100 as the most likely scenario. The New York Times (NYT) brought together the worst case scenarios in “The Uninhabitable Earth”, based on interviews with the world’s top climate scientists.
They are beyond the imagination of most people today. In Earth’s history a rise of 5°C in only 13 years probably occurred. If that were to happen again, the title of the NYT article would not be far off. Soon there’ll be no Houston to call to if we have a problem.
The Paris agreement correctly states we should work to staying “well below” 2 degrees Celsius of warming. But it’s a pipedream to think that our leaders are on it. The gap between the lofty aspirations in the Paris agreement and climate reality (we just had three record warming years in a row) will not be solved with voluntary Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
Countries can do what they want and opt out when they want. Reality is simple: when fossil fuels are dug up, they will be burned. The reality is that we’ll have to keep most of them in the ground.
Germany is a pretty good place to stop coal extraction right at the source – which is the goal of the Ende Gëlande action. Historically, only 5 countries have emitted more greenhouse gasses per capita than Germany, all of them Western countries. That brings us to the historical perspective on anthropogenic climate change.
The Antropocene: who did it?
Between 1850 and 2007, the US emitted 29 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In second place, but with a much larger population, is China - with only 9 percent.
Rikard Warlenius from LUND University writes in his doctoral thesis: “Current climate agreements do not reflect considerations of justice or historical responsibility. Developed countries have emitted disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate change disproportionately affects poor countries.”
This historic emissions balance is no longer translated into differentiated responsibilities. The neglect and indifference to history has happened despite many voices crying for a fair agreement that takes the “climate debt” of developed countries seriously.
The climate justice movement, the developing countries, many philosophers and political theorists and even the Pope have emphasized that “a true ecological debt exists”.
In his text Laudato Si, Pope Francis claims that “[t]he developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development”. He also wrote that “[t]here is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues”.
Warlenius’ doctoral thesis responds to this need by calculating the climate debt of most nations. He calculates the “sinks appropriations”, i.e. the disproportionate use by rich people of the atmosphere, the oceans, and new vegetation to dump excessive emissions of carbon dioxide.
The results confirm that historical responsibility for climate change is certainly unevenly distributed between countries, largely following the North-South divide. Warlenius argues strongly in favor of assigning payments for climate change mitigation and adaption in proportion to historical responsibility.
A climate debt: rooted in society and in science
The concept of climate debt is strongly rooted in the climate justice movement. The origin of the broader concept of an ecological debt is traced to environmental movements, mainly in Latin America, in the early 1990s.
It is a conjuncture of three important currents: the environmental movement mobilising to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the remembrance of 500 years of anti-colonial resistance, and the then burgeoning struggle for external debt relief. By referring to the existence of an ecological debt larger than the financial debt, the arrow of arrears was reversed. That idea is so powerful that it is here to stay.
The concept is traced all the way back to Karl Marx, the German philosopher and socialist, but more recently to political ecologists of the 1990s and 2000s. Warlenius concludes that the relation between the concepts can be formalised this way: “The net flows of natural resources, other products, wastes, and sink appropriations, we call ecologically unequal exchange. The cumulative stock resulting from these historical net flows, we call ecological debt”.
From history to future
Should the past matter today? While the Paris agreement proclaimed that there was “No liability” for GHG emissions and took out the teeth from the concept of “Loss and Damage” in the final negotiations, Warlenius claims that, “[a]s soon as a more serious attempt is made to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the issues of global justice, binding targets, historical responsibility and reparations will resurface too.”
Actions like Ende Gëlande answer to both the acute need to keep fossil fuels in the ground as well as an historic responsibility for Germany. The same goes for actions in most Western nations. When people in the West occupy fossil fuel extraction sites they may need to confront the police, but they’ll find earth scientists and history on their side.
Nick Meynen is the Project Officer for Global Policies and Sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau. He tweets at @.