Climate Reparations Could Save Us All

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Before Kyoto and Paris, there was Chantilly. In early 1991, diplomats, scientists, and policy makers from around the world arrived at a hotel conference center near Virginia’s Dulles International Airport, which is famously far from everything. The delegates had been tasked with creating the first international framework for confronting climate change. An ill omen shrouded the proceedings: Virginia was in the grip of a then-record heat wave, with highs of 70 degrees in early February.

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The convention unfolded over the course of five sessions and 15 months. For the most part, the attendees weren’t debating whether human industry caused global warming. Rather, their mission was to figure out what to do about it, given the preponderance of the evidence that existed even two generations ago. European delegates wanted to establish binding limits on the emissions that each country could produce, which the American representatives immediately shot down. (At the time, the United States was far and away the largest carbon emitter of any country in the world.) There was almost no international accord at all, until the Japanese delegates promoted a weak proposal with no binding emissions targets, which the U.S. accepted.

The big players had made their statement: They would not oblige themselves to prevent climate change. But a faction of smaller countries had come determined to try to make its mark, too. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group representing dozens of, well, small island states, led by the tiny Pacific nation of Vanuatu, consistently pushed for more ambitious policy. These nations also devised a novel framework, one through which those most affected by climate change would receive funding and support from the countries that had done the most to change the climate. That framework never made it into the final agreement. But history’s dissents can be road maps for the future.

Thirty-three years later, both emissions and global temperatures have increased faster than expected. Crises that were objects of conjecture in 1991 are upon us: We are witnessing extreme weather events, acidification of the oceans, aggressive sea-level rise, megadroughts, megafires, and an inexorable onslaught of heat. These issues tend to be much more destructive for AOSIS nations and other developing countries than for the U.S. and other major economies.

Climate policy, in America and abroad, has also genuinely transformed since 1991. The United States still rejects binding emissions targets, but emissions have been falling since 2005, owing to steady progress in emissions rules, renewable energy, and, recently, wide adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles. Following decades of pressure from AOSIS and from other countries, at the United Nations’ 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) on climate change, in 2022, the U.S. even voted to create a fund through which wealthy nations can help support countries defined as “vulnerable” to climate change.

American support of that program, however, has thus far been nominal at best. Across the world, many otherwise bold sustainability programs merely nod at the necessity of providing direct, debt-free aid to endangered states. (Most climate funding takes the form of loans that increase the debt burdens on already distressed economies.) Wealthy countries seem eager to ease their conscience, not to make real commitments to the countries most exposed to climate disaster.

As the global effort against the climate crisis still struggles with scale and pace, world leaders should rethink their ordering of priorities. The AOSIS proposal represented a radical new way of looking at climate change, one that emphasized accountability. American policy makers have been hostile to this idea, which has inspired a broader movement known as climate reparations, and it remains controversial elsewhere. But climate reparations aren’t just the fairest way to compensate small nations like Vanuatu. They may also be the only way we save ourselves.

The Vanuatu document is remarkable in its prescience. Years before the majority of Americans even believed that climate change affected them, the AOSIS delegates wrote that “the very existence of low-lying coastal and small vulnerable island countries is placed at risk by the consequences of climate change.”

Back then, the coral reefs around the Seychelles had not yet been destroyed. Hurricane Maria had not yet plunged Puerto Rico into a year of darkness. Salt water was not yet regularly flooding Bangladesh’s mustard fields. But there were warnings. Caribbean fishermen had reported drastic climate-related changes to fisheries as early as 1987. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo rampaged through the Caribbean and the U.S., flattening towns and displacing thousands of people on its way to becoming, at the time, the single costliest hurricane in history—a preview of today’s stronger, more volatile storms. Audre Lorde, who’d retired to St. Croix, wrote of her experience with Hugo: “The earth is telling us something about our conduct of living, as well as about our abuse of this covenant we live upon.”

The Vanuatu document is still one of the best commonsense approaches to the politics of climate. To AOSIS, the carbon emissions causing climate change were nothing more than pollution, no different from coal ash or smog. And the document identified industrial nations, with America in the vanguard, as the polluters. This may seem like a straightforward statement of fact. Too often, however, the source of the problem is obscured in the climate debate.

In recent years, it’s become fashionable to talk of the Anthropocene, a proposed epoch of geologic time, like the Middle Jurassic, in which anthropos, or man, is the main force shaping the natural world. There is no question that people have had a massive effect on the Earth’s ecosystems and its changing climate. But to focus on the role of humanity is to overlook the fact that some humans bear far more responsibility than others.

Over the recorded history of industrial emissions, 20 corporations, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as state-owned energy companies in places like China and Saudi Arabia have been responsible for more than half of all cumulative carbon emissions, a share that has actually risen to more than 60 percent since 2016. From 1990 to 2020, the cumulative emissions of the United States and the European Union member states, which together account for about a tenth of the global population, were higher than the combined emissions of India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, and South Korea, which account for about 30 percent of the global population. (Even within the nations that emit the most carbon, the burden is not shared equally—according to a 2020 study, the wealthiest 10 percent of American households account for 40 percent of the country’s carbon output.) Leaders in the oil and gas industry have understood climate change as human-driven since at least 1982, when Exxon’s own researchers helped link carbon emissions and rising temperatures, meaning they knowingly made decisions that led to this crisis. (Exxon has denied that its models—which proved remarkably accurate—represented foreknowledge of climate change.) It would be more precise to call our present epoch the Exxonocene.

Recognizing this reality, the AOSIS proposal called for industrialized countries to implement green energy and technology in developing countries, and to create a “loss and damage” fund to compensate countries for future costs stemming from climate change, including permanent climate-related losses of land, habitats, and population, as well as damages that could be remediated.

The loss-and-damage plan was modest, in its way: Its demands were purely forward-looking. It did not address the historical carbon pollution that was already heating up the world in 1991, or the devastation already absorbed by island states from sea-level rise, deforestation, disrupted fisheries, and heat.

In the years since the AOSIS proposal, other thinkers took up the Vanuatu framework and proposed more ambitious programs of recompense. In 2009, the legal scholar Maxine Burkett, who is now a White House climate adviser, made one of the first comprehensive calls for industrial states to compensate the “climate vulnerable.” For Burkett, climate vulnerability arises both from exposure to hazards such as hurricanes and sea-level rise, and from a lack of resources and resiliency to deal with those threats.

Because of the geography of colonialism, these two kinds of vulnerability often intersect. In Haiti, for example, French colonizers imported African slaves to clear-cut ancient forests, and then ruthlessly exploited the colony’s natural and human resources for generations. After the descendants of those slaves rose to power in the late 18th century during the Haitian Revolution, France imposed hefty indemnities on the new nation for the war, and centuries of isolation and intervention by the United States further eroded social and economic structures. Given its location, Haiti would always have been affected by hurricanes and sea-level rise. But the United States’ and France’s emissions have supercharged those threats, and their exploitation of Haiti has left it less capable of defending itself.

For Burkett, addressing climate change in these places requires not just loss-and-damage–style funds, but also compensation and assistance for climate disruption that has already been inflicted—true reparations. Such efforts could take different forms, with different levels of ambition. The UN could create a vehicle through which wealthy countries pledge a percentage of their GDP to developing countries. Or an individual country might heavily tax—or even nationalize—its private oil and gas industry and pledge some or all of the proceeds to its own climate-disadvantaged citizens and to neighboring countries for climate-adaptation projects. Beyond direct monetary payments, some commentators argue for no-cost installations of sustainable-energy technology and infrastructure. Writing in New York magazine in 2021, David Wallace-Wells advocated for reparations in the form of a massive investment by industrial countries in carbon-capture technology—essentially paying to reverse the historic emissions that have so devastated other nations.

But compensation is only part of reparations’ importance. Burkett argues that the very act of acknowledging a debt is key to the process as well, for the sake of both the polluter and the polluted. This acknowledgment makes clear that the global community is interested in the survival of the most imperiled states. Moral leadership by America would also put pressure on China and India, the two rising carbon powers, to acknowledge their own roles in this crisis. In the game of global opinion, at least, no country wants to look like the climate-change villain.

Perhaps the most important component of any kind of reparations is a commitment by the offender to stop offending. Embracing reparations would incentivize wealthy nations to set aggressive emissions targets and meet them. A true reparations program thus wouldn’t be an ancillary charity attached to other solutions, but the overarching climate policy itself.

This spring, weeks of torrential downpours inundated Rio Grande do Sul, a prosperous state in southern Brazil. The resulting floods were some of the worst in the country’s modern history, leaving nearly the entire state submerged. After surveying the damage, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appeared distraught. He issued a remarkable statement. “This was the third record flood in the same region of the country in less than a year,” he told The Washington Post. “We and the world need to prepare every day with more plans and resources to deal with extreme climate occurrences.” He also said that wealthy nations owed a “historic debt” to those affected by climate change.

Brazil is itself a major emitter of carbon, but it has also been a leader in pushing for a serious commitment to the loss-and-damage fund that was finally established at COP27. The United States had long been the biggest opponent to any such program, but it was outflanked by China and a group of developing countries—including Brazil—and ultimately voted for the fund.

That, however, vote came with conditions. The U.S. later pushed to establish the fund for its first four years within the World Bank, where it holds a lone veto, and also made contributions voluntary, instead of binding. My colleague Zoë Schlanger reported in 2023 that Sue Biniaz, the deputy special envoy for climate at the State Department, said she “violently opposes” arguments that developed countries have a legal obligation under the UN framework to pay into the fund. So far, the U.S. has mostly shirked responsibility, pledging only $17.5 million to the fund. (Germany, by contrast, has promised $100 million.)

If this is the commitment the U.S. is willing to make to loss and damage, it’s difficult to imagine the country adopting a true reparations program, which would require legislation that would not pass in our currently polarized Congress, and would also be immediately reversed by any future Republican president. Yet if American policy makers somehow come back around to making actual policy, they’ll find that, far from being an extreme notion, reparations are an eminently practical one. Climate change is already prompting the movement of millions of people across borders, which in turn has led to the rise of autocratic leaders who pledge to keep those displaced peoples out. As climate change continues, the most vulnerable nations will fall first, but their collapse will not be contained. Sooner or later, the walled American garden will also wither in the heat.

An American embrace of climate reparations would create mutual obligations between disconnected hemispheres of the world, and break the climate-policy gridlock among wealthy countries. And despite the enormous cost of paying for past and future damage, those costs would be far lower than the price of failure. A recent study in Nature estimated that wealthy countries owe poorer countries a climate debt of almost $200 trillion. In 2020 and 2021, G20 countries alone allocated upwards of $14 trillion in stimulus spending to counteract the economic effects of COVID. A similar commitment to climate reparations by 2050 would address our climate debts, save millions of lives in the developing world, and give many countries a chance to adapt.

As Americans, we have a choice: to continue on our current path, or to take responsibility for our actions. For at least the immediate future, wealthy Americans will be protected from the worst of the climate crisis. This comfort is seductive, but ultimately illusory. To survive, we will have to, as the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò says, begin to think “as ancestors.” It has proved difficult throughout history to convince Americans to engage in this kind of long-term thinking, but there have been exceptions. The Civil War gave way to an overhaul of the Constitution for posterity. The Great Depression helped birth our modern social safety net. The space race gave us the moon. Now we can choose to give our children the Earth.

This article appears in the July/August 2024 print edition with the headline “The Vanuatu Plan.”

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