Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

"debt" imageI’m intrigued by this notion of “climate debt,” but before I get into it I want to make one thing clear: the transfer of substantial resources from rich to poor countries is necessary for a successful international treaty. It’s necessary for a successful attempt to address global climate change. Nothing below is meant to suggest otherwise. Mmkay?

That said, I’d like to poke and prod the issue a bit.

“Climate debt,” as it’s being discussed in Copenhagen, takes as its premises that the atmosphere is the shared property of all humanity and that all human beings have a right to an equal share. Our shared atmosphere has been degraded largely through the fossil-fueled development of the West, so it is fair for the West to make steeper emissions cuts. This basic notion — “common but differentiated responsibilities,” as it’s known in the UNFCCC — is relatively uncontroversial at this point.

Dig a little further, though, and there are at least three related but distinct arguments at work:

1. Reparations

The atmosphere has a finite tolerance for greenhouse gases, beyond which there is non-trivial risk of radical, irreversible changes in climate that could threaten human civilization. No one is exactly sure what that amount is, or how close we are to exceeding it, but the latest science seems to indicate that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere of more than 350 parts per million (ppm) is in the danger zone. We’re already past that mark.

In their fossil-fueled development, the countries of the West have emitted around 75 percent of total historical greenhouse gases. Judged by their population, they have consumed more than their fair share of atmosphere; they overcharged their savings account. Their climate debt amounts to an obligation to pay developing nations back for this overcharge.

2. Fairness

If every human being has the right to an equal share of the atmosphere, then the just goal — by, say, 2050 — is to equalize those rights across hemispheres and countries. All human beings will have a per capita share; those who exceed theirs owe restitution to those who come in under it. That’s climate debt cleared off the books: climate justice.

3. Adaptation

The climate pollution already in the atmosphere has “locked in” a certain degree of climate change. Since rich nations produced the bulk of historical pollution, they bear the bulk of the responsibility for the damages that result. Those damages will fall disproportionately on the world’s poorest countries, which bear the least responsibility. Given the situation, rich countries are obliged to help poor countries pay to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects.

Nos. 1 and 2 are radical

Head U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern said, “I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like.” What exactly was he rejecting, and why the strong language? I believe it’s Nos. 1 and 2 that Stern is rejecting, and that rich countries will always reject. It would be collective seppuku.

Sign Up for More News from GristThere’s a range of finite resources on earth, not just atmosphere but oil, coal, gold, diamonds, various minerals, etc. To some extent they are all zero-sum games — for me to have more (or pollute more) is for someone else to have less. That’s what finitude means. Are they all to be newly conceived as common property, shared on an equal per capita basis across the global population? Even if the notion were accepted, it’s not clear how it could be achieved or enforced. For one it would seem to require an extraordinary amount of coordinated coercion from the world’s governments.

It’s an egalitarianism so radical it would make Marx blush. For the U.S. to accept it would be for it to commit to ambitions larger by several orders of magnitude than anything the U.S. Senate could possibly conceive.

There’s a possible riposte from developed nations. Jim Manzi mentioned it during our discussion the other day. To wit: why should only resource consumption count on the cosmic scales of justice? Why not production too? Why footprint and not handprint? If the West has consumed more atmosphere, hasn’t it also created marvels of science, technology, literature, and medicine that have benefited people of every nation? Who exactly will be responsible for tallying those debits and credits up and writing the bill?

Climate debt along the lines of Nos. 1 and 2 has a kind of Peter Singer-ish appeal, but it is somewhat impractical as a tool to achieve political accord in the time frames available. However:

No. 3 is plausible, even from weaker premises

To get No. 3, you don’t need the strong claim that all humans have a right to an equal share of atmosphere. You only need the more pedestrian moral and legal claim that those who impose avoidable damages on others’ property owe compensation. If the West’s pollution of the atmosphere is imposing water shortages, droughts, severe weather, food insecurity, and disease on poor nations, it owes them recompense.

Is ignorance of consequences exculpatory?

To explain his rejection of the climate debt notion, Stern said:

For most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

Given CO2’s persistence in the atmosphere, the damages that will be done in the next 10-20 years are a result of CO2 emitted 20-30 years ago and more. That was before the world clearly understood that climate change is a danger. (I think it’s fair to date that moment to James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress.) Is a group of people liable for damage their forebears did inadvertently — damage they couldn’t reasonably have been expected to know they were doing?

Getting there with decency

It may be a personal thing, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the rights-based approach to this. That seems to end in all sorts of legalistic arguments that can’t ultimately be adjudicated, and bypasses what ought to be the first appeal, to simple decency and compassion. Issues like climate change are strong indicators that it’s time to start thinking of humanity as a tribe — an “us.” When we see millions in our tribe suffering as a consequence of our actions and we have the resources to help, we should help. When we are putting our descendents at risk, we should stop. Cultivating that basic moral sentiment is going to be a necessary part of solving the kind of distributed, incremental problems humanity now faces.

The pragmatic case

Ultimately all the thumbsucking above is moot. The fact is, helping the developing world deal with climate change and shift onto a more sustainable development path is manifestly in the developed world’s self-interest.

First off, it’s necessary to bringing developing nations into an international treaty, without which it will be difficult to push the scale of action needed. More to the point, it will help avert water conflicts, refugee crises, food shortages, devastating severe weather damage, and massive economic dislocation. It will increase global stability and security. It will help establish new markets for innovation and new trading partners.

It must be done. I’m just not sure the “debt” model, so based on guilt and dependence, is necessary or helpful in explaining why.

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