Ecological Debt and Climate Justice After Durban: Time for Some Practical Politics

By Timmons Roberts*

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Photo Cred: Orin Langelle/GJEP

Written December 21, 2011, posted March 21, 2012

In the utilitarian lecture-hall of the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa, some of the world’s top scholars and activists on the “ecological debt” spoke to a half-full hall.   Impassioned speeches outlined the big idea: that rather than owing a huge economic debt to private and World Bank lenders and governments of the wealthier nations, the world’s poorer nations are actually owed an “ecological debt” due to the plundering of their natural resources by colonists and neo-colonizing corporations alike.

Who owes by this reckoning?  The global North.  The bill?  By one scholarly estimate: US$1.8 trillion.  Others argue that it is impossible to calculate the value of complex ecological systems, but the first level estimation is that the financial debt of poor nations is tiny in comparison and should be forgiven.

The microphone is passed around the audience in the risers, and finally finds its way to the hands of a Durban labor union leader.

“We must get beyond nice slogans, to find the practical politics to rally around,” he says.  “Do we really expect the North to pay reparations?  And who pays, corporations or states?”

This event, taking place at the dramatic hilltop university in parallel to the United Nations’ “Conference of the Parties” following up on the Kyoto Protocol about four miles away at the glitzy convention center in downtown Durban, was part of “the people’s conference”, an ambitious counter-event organized by the Economic Justice Network of the Foccisa Fellowship of Christian Councils in South Africa.  The miniconference was focused an idea that has gained traction over the past decade in developing countries—the Ecological Debt—and how it relates to the injustice of climate change.

The case of climate change raises a simple and stark case of injustice: the poorest nations did not cause the problem but are suffering its impacts first and worst, without the conditions to cope with these impacts.   The reality of this injustice is irrefutable, and the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change acknowledged it and how wealthy nations therefore needed to act most aggressively and quickly to address it by reducing our emissions and sending money South to help them avoid carbon emissions and cope with climate disasters.

While the injustice is clear, the practical politics called for by the Durban labor leader are anything but clear.  Todd Stern, the lead negotiator from the United States, said at a press conference in Copenhagen two years ago that because for most of history we were “blissfully ignorant” of the impacts of fossil fuel burning, “I completely reject the notion of a debt, or reparations, or anything of the like.”  Voluntary compensation to the victims remains off the table for the U.S., and legal efforts to force reparations are extremely preliminary and hotly contested.

This intransigence extends to most other developed countries, loath to admit the need to compensate poor nations for past, present or future damages from a destabilized climate.   So we are left with the Durban labor leader’s question: what are the practical politics of addressing climate justice?  And what was the impact of the Durban negotiations on efforts to address climate justice—are we closer or further away after Durban?

The core language of the UNFCCC agreed by 194 countries in 1992 is that nations would act according to their “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities.”  This “CBDR+RC” was understood as the US and other rich nations taking the first steps and the developing countries joining in later.  However the US Senate’s July 1997 Byrd-Hagel Resolution sought to avoid an “unfair” advantage to overseas firms by prohibiting the nation from taking binding action reducing our emissions without there also being binding limits on India and China’s emissions.

The battle for a more just climate policy has become quite fragmented, specific and balkanized in the past few years.  For example, in an effort to gain a predictable and adequate flow of funding to developing countries for addressing their needs to adapt to climate change, many groups have focused on “innovative” finance mechanisms, like a financial transaction levy, an airline levy, or taxes on “bunker fuels,” those used in international shipping.  These international taxes are especially appealing since they would avoid national treasuries and flow through United Nations channels, where the developing world has more leverage than in World Bank-controlled funds.

While generally in favor of these tax measures, most groups in the Climate Justice Now! (CJN!) network have taken hardline positions against any mechanisms that allows trading and markets in carbon, includingbecause they allow rich nations to get off the hook from reductions they should be making at home.  CJN!’s position often puts climate justice activists outside the room when United Nations and national policies are being debated, since both the Kyoto Protocol and EU and US regional greenhouse gas reduction plans have been centered around the practical political idea that trading emissions permits allows emissions reductions to go on where the costs are the lowest.

Durban negotiations saw the EU joining up with the Association of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries to push for a new commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol after its expiry in 2012, but CJN!’s 10 December press release argued that “the richest nations have cynically created a new regime of climate apartheid” by delaying real action until 2020.   Critical of nearly every element of the Durban Framework, CJN! argued that “Developed countries, in assuming their historical responsibility, must honor their climate debt in all its dimensions as the basis for a just, effective, and scientific solution.“

Certainly developed nations much honor their debt and act as we promised back in 1992, acknowledging our responsibility and capability to do so. The framework built by the NGO EcoEquity.org lays out estimates of each nation’s responsibility and capability quite clearly.  However, the outcomes of the Durban package are intriguing precisely because they allow forward progress in spite of diametrically opposed positions of the U.S., BASIC, and the new EU-LDC-AOSIS coalition.  By saying there are going to be emissions limits with “legal force” by 2020 on all nations (including India and China) and by calling for tougher action as it becomes necessary and possible, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action may have found the sweet spot between the perfect and the possible.  Time will tell, and serious militancy will be required to mobilize the effort the Platform promises.

2020 is a brilliant time horizon from the perspective of politicians because it is just over the political horizon—they can pass the tough decisions off to their successors.  However we know that 2020 is too late for serious action reducing our emissions, so “increasing our ambitions” will be needed urgently, especially by the biggest emitters.  This in turn requires a mobilized civil society in places where it has been weak (the U.S., China, among many other places), demanding tough choices by their politicians to address a long-term but grave issue.  National policies need to be strengthened in harmony with international norms, so that single countries do not feel they are acting alone.  And the easiest part of the puzzle for the wealthier nations is to meet their promise of supporting green energy solutions in developing countries. But if this is to lead to greater justice on climate change, these efforts must support solutions that actually reduce climate-changing pollution. This means closing various loopholes. This is a job for civil society, who must wade through messy politics to create the best change possible.

Karl Marx famously said that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”  The injustice of climate change will not be righted quickly or with utopian slogans, as the Durban labor leader pointed out.  We owe the Ecological Debt, to be sure, but the paying of that debt must be creatively crafted into a system of payments and emission reductions that can be seen to benefit all, South and North.  The G20 meetings and the Rio+20 meetings in June are excellent times for movement in globally addressing these debts.

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