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Climate justice as climate reparations

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By Aissa Dearing

· 5 min read

When global leaders gathered at COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, there were growing calls for a reparative mechanism to compensate the world’s most vulnerable communities, the members of which are bearing the burden of anthropogenic climate change. Known by various names—“climate reparations,” “loss and damage,” or “climate justice”—these calls sought to redress the climate imbalance that threatens us all.

As Jaron Browne and Tom Goldtooth explain, the wealthiest and most powerful nations have opposed the idea of formally legislating this responsibility in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as it would require a firm commitment to the redistribution of resources from colonial and imperial states to colonized communities around the world. Audrey R. Chapman and A. Karim Ahmed make further make the case: These colonial and imperial states (geographically situated in the Global North) have benefited from historical and current carbon emissions for their development, taking up more than their fair share of the “atmospheric budget.” This logic is supported by the best available science, as last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly acknowledged the inextricable link between anthropogenic climate change and colonial development. As COP28 progressed, the glaring question was: is it possible to work towards climate justice through a politics of repair?

First and foremost, it’s difficult to compensate for harm when the harm is ongoing. The US is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions and is still the highest emitter per capita today. While the US seeks to address planetary consumption internally, it must not rely on “carbon leakage,” the dirty secret of the Global North’s carbon and natural resource consumption. As defined by Onno Kuik and Reyer Gerlagh, carbon leakage occurs when the Global North, seeking to reduce emissions within its own borders, relies on natural resources and production occurring in the Global South to satisfy an ever-in surmounting demand. To genuinely reduce planetary impact, the US must holistically decarbonize and reduce resource consumption—a concept sustainability scholar Sonja Klinsky aptly terms “non-repetition reparations.”

Furthermore, material climate reparations in the form of monetary compensation, land and natural resource allocation, and debt cancellation would support the mitigation and adaptation efforts of vulnerable communities. As low-income communities develop, they need resources to transition to a decarbonized global economy. However, these policies must respect the sovereignty and agency of the communities they aim to support, free from imposed climate targets. Monetary compensation or debt cancellation shouldn’t have climate targets attached—there must be a trust-based approach to redistributing resources. In fact, as Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, a theological ethicist, argues, if low-income communities decide to develop their own reservoirs of fossilized resources or to expand deforestation efforts, it will be their right to claim their fair share of the “carbon budget.” Developing states are emitting carbon now as they ramp up deforestation for agriculture and development, both critical pillars of industrialization that they shouldn’t be punished for or dissuaded from doing. This is where the internalization of climate responsibility, or the attribution of the effects of anthropogenic climate change, becomes crucial for Global North countries, as it must be their imperative to “make room” in the carbon budget for communities who haven’t had the opportunity to industrialize.

It’s difficult to determine a concrete dollar amount for the historical and current destruction caused by anthropogenic climate change. How does one monetarily value one’s ancestral home or the loss of community cohesion? But, as Daniel A. Farber notes in “Basic Compensation for Victims of Climate Change,” just because it’s impossible ever fully to pay for something priceless doesn’t mean one shouldn’t attempt to do so.

Yet, reparative efforts must go above and beyond pure material reparation. The evaluation of family, community, and nature in monetary terms for climate reparations purely “economizes” the anthropogenic climate crisis, which can obscure the need for a holistic approach to the redistribution of power. Moe-Lobeda emphasizes that Global North countries must consider their positionality and privilege within the crisis and allow vulnerable communities to create mechanisms of accountability for those with the responsibility of reparative justice.

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About the author

Aissa Dearing is a Researcher at the University of Oxford at the nexus of carbon drawdown, climate justice, and all things land use.

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