System change and internationalism

| 16th April 2019
Climate justice activists from Nepal, Peru, Germany, the USA and the Philippines marching in Bonn during COP23
The fight against climate breakdown demands that we face up to the legacies of colonialism.


The moral argument at the heart of the resurgent climate movement in the Global North must be extended beyond the belly of the imperial beast and into the international arena, in order to advance climate justice.

Read Part One: 'A new chance for climate justice'

The emperor may have no clothes, but there are a growing number of emperors. Some - such as Trump and Bolsonaro - have shown a disdain for climate policies, actions and international agreements, while also showing a lust for extractive industries that burn fossil fuels and deforest the planet.

For most of the world, climate chaos is a threatening pit, a death spiral. For snakes like Trump, Bolsonaro and the Koch brothers it is a ladder of opportunity.

Climate breakdown 

Climate breakdown will not only result in the death of a lot of people - predominantly poor people, in the Global South - it will also reduce the ability of social movements to organise.

As I wrote yesterday, climate breakdown may also end up providing justification for further authoritarian measures as things fall apart.

The basis for sufficiently limiting the damage done by climate change – international cooperation, long-term planning, government intervention in the economy, and a fair (re)distribution of resources – will be snatched out from under us at precisely the moment that the climate system begins to go completely haywire.

The morality at the core of the Green New Deal in the US – that the poor should not be forced to shoulder the burden of responsibility for cleaning up a mess caused mainly by the rich – is one of its central strengths after years of apolitical arguments for climate action.

Similarly, the argument used by the School Strikes – that future generations should not have to suffer because of the glutinous overconsumption of previous generations – resonates thanks to its moral clarity.

Arithmetic of responsibility 

International climate politics is fundamentally an argument about responsibility. The arithmetic of this responsibility is relatively simple. 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of all emissions. 10 percent of the world’s population are responsible for 50 percent of emissions (while raking in 50 percent of global income). Overwhelmingly, they live in the global North

The US has emitted  eight billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide since 1850, more than any other country and more than most other countries combined.

An average person in the US has an annual carbon footprint over 16 tonnes and a per capita annual income of over $55,000.

By contrast, an average individual in Mali earns $700 dollars per year and produces less than a tenth of 1 tonne of carbon emissions.

Due to this rapacious overconsumption, from which their immense wealth is derived, Global North countries owe what climate justice movements have come to define as a “climate debt”. The debt is both for over polluting and for denying the South the easy fossil fuel-based pathway of accruing capital.

Climate debt 

Repaying the debt would involve rich countries doing their “fair share” of a collective global effort to stay below 1.5℃.

But what does that mean, in the context of huge historical resource extraction by the rich countries?

The truth is that even radical domestic policies by rich countries to cut emissions won’t do enough by themselves to stop climate chaos, unless the global South does more than its fair share.

Obviously this would be an unfair burden to place at the door of the nations of the South, so the excess must be covered with massive transfers (trillions rather than billions) of finance and technology from the North to the South.

Whether we call it reparations or climate finance, the reality remains the same. It is not impossible – after all, there is always money for bailing out the banks or launching more wars – but convincing the populations of the Global North that addressing climate change requires them to face up to the legacies of colonialism is not easy.

Making reparations

The main point here is not that reparations are required because they are the right thing to do. The point is that they are necessary to avert further breakdown of the planet’s natural systems.

The transformations we need to make cannot be brought about without the countries of the Global South. And those countries cannot play their part if there is no finance, technology, and capacity to do so.

But if the North’s responsibilities are shirked again, if the American way of life is not up for negotiation, if the sound morality of the Green New Deal means eco-socialism for America and barbarism for the rest of the world, then the US completing its fair share is out of the question. And so is the possibility of a habitable earth.

Many proponents of the Green New Deal are very clear about its intra-national justice and equity dimensions. They correctly frame equity as non-negotiable and as the key to climate ambition rather than an obstacle.

This is exactly the kind of attitude that the world urgently needs US-based groups to carry to the inter-national level.

Great escape

This won’t be an easy task, given the US’s historic dedication to obstructionism, from the League of Nations, through Kyoto, to the Paris Agreement.

The US government has always been anti-equity at home, and even more fervently anti-equity in its foreign policy. During international negotiations in 2011, Todd Stern (Obama’s Special Envoy on climate change) quipped “if equity’s in, we’re out”.

Such villainy has provided cover for other Global North countries to not only maintain their own fossil fuel addiction but continue forcing it on others. Collectively, they managed to complete a “great escape” from international law, before replacing that law altogether with an agreement – the Paris Agreement – that does not oblige Global North countries to do anything other than report on their own actions.

The Agreement also explicitly absolves Global North countries of their liability for climate-related disasters. Unsurprisingly, the result is a world on course for 4℃ warming, and complete civilizational collapse.

Ultimately, the persistent refusal by rich people and rich countries to reign themselves in even slightly is going to destroy the basis for life on earth. What makes refusal even sadder is that they wouldn’t even have to live like the global majority to massively reduce their footprint: as climate scientist Kevin Anderson often points out, if the richest 10 percent reduced their emissions to the levels of an average European (i.e. a totally comfortable lifestyle) global emissions would drop 30 percent.

Or as an alliance of civil society groups put it: “If they were obliged to deliver their fair share of climate action, this alone would amount to 67-87 percent of the total 2030 mitigation requirements for 1.5℃”.

Devastating impacts

The past year has shown that there are new openings in the North for climate justice movements to advance system change. But for every opportunity there is a threat. A global movement for climate justice needs to be clear about which is which. 

The prospect of rebalancing power between and within countries may seem like a remote one, but it's been done before.

Social movements in the South are capable of many things, from overthrowing colonial rule to ousting dictatorships and from ending apartheid to resisting privatization. They are not, however, capable of transforming the world system without strong, radical, and coherent movements in the North. 

The devastating impacts of climate change are already raining down as we have seen across the globe; in Dominica, where a single hurricane caused damages worth 224 percent of the country’s GDP; in Mozambique, where a single storm destroyed 90 percent of a major port city; in India, where 60,000 farmer suicides have been linked to climate change; in Colombia, where worsening drought threatens to wipe out the Wayuu people; and in the Philippines, where many are still struggling to cope 5 years after Typhoon Haiyan.

There is no hope for a global climate justice movement if the majority of people in it are dealing with such impacts while the minority in the North are hamstrung by ideological constraints and business-as-usual modus operandi.

International solidarity 

Movements in the North must therefore do more than simply repackage their existing efforts.

Larger green NGOs are already rebranding, and attracting the funds for doing so, while perpetuating the same old, too little too late strategies of the past.

Groups in the North will have to put meat on the bones of the system change slogan by articulating clear alternatives in order to truly step up to the plate and play their part in a resurgent, ecologically-minded global justice movement.

They will simultaneously have to reconnect with their legacies of international solidarity and build the power of the collective rather than the cult of celebrity in order to leverage the power of the state to limit corporate power.

They have to be more ambitious than they’ve ever been –and this means being more committed to justice, for everyone, than ever before.

This Author 

Nathan Thanki is co-coordinator of the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, a network of over 250 groups around the world struggling for system change. He also coordinates the climate justice constituency at the United Nations climate change negotiations and is a co-founder of The World of 1℃, a communications initiative which aims to improve ecological literacy and promote climate justice framing.

A version of this article was first published on Open Democracy. Read Part One: 'A new chance for climate justice'. 

Image: Climate justice activists from Nepal, Peru, Germany, the USA and the Philippines marching in Bonn during COP23. © Claire Miranda, Asian People's Movement on debt & Development. 

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