Unpaid Debts and Climate Reparations

I was reminded recently of one of my favourite scenes in The West Wing series. White House Deputy Chief of staff Josh Lyman is interviewing a new legislative appointee. The interview has been provoked by the discovery that the appointee had written an endorsement for a book supporting slavery reparations. Following a heated exchange about the practical and philosophical issues surrounding the payment of financial compensation to the families of former slaves Lyman proclaims,  “[…] I’d love to give you your money back, I really would, but I’m a little short on cash at the moment, you see the SS Guard forgot to give my grandfather his wallet back when he let him out Birkenau.”

This scene kept flashing into my mind when I recently reviewed Anders and Tor Sandberg’s edited collection Climate Change, Who’s Carrying the Burden (2010, The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). Various chapters in this book address the difficult, but thorny issue of the reparations that are owing to certain peoples due to the emerging socio-ecological costs of climate change. The Platform for Climate Justice estimates that a climatic debt of approximately $(US)24 trillion has been incurred between 1800 and 2008 by the industrialized world. This climate debt is owed to the peoples of the less economically developed world, who have not only failed to benefit from the economic growth that has been built on the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but who now find themselves involuntarily exposed to the worst effects of climate change.

In a world where climate change scepticism is a powerful force talk of climate debt and reparation is clearly a difficult political sell. It is also clearly surrounded by a veritable quagmire of ethical conundrums pertaining to intergeneration and trans-spatial justice. Even in a world of assiduous carbon footprint assessments and monitoring ascertaining who owes whom what is clearly an impossible task.  In the fictional realm of The West Wing the debate about historically reparations is resolved when the legal appointee reflects that no amount of money can ever heal the wounds of slavery. He concludes, however, by observing that the debate over reparations can form the basis for ongoing recognition of the always already present responsibilities that the current generation has for redressing the ongoing damage of slavery. In terms of climate debt, I believe that the Global North does owe a debt to the Global South. This is a debt that should not be dressed-up in the form of benevolent aid, but as repayment. To these ends, whether it is politically advised or not, talking about the precise form and nature and climate debt is an important starting point for beginning to comprehend the new contours of socio-ecological justice that will undoubtedly define the 21st Century. No amount of money will ever be able to provide retrospective atonement should the wealth of the global minority result in the unmitigated climatic suffering of the global majority.


About Mark J Whitehead

Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University
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