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Payment of Climate Debt, by Rich Polluting Nations to Poorer Victims, a Complex Issue

Justice advocates roil debate by questioning role of extractive industries that provide path to economic development

By Guest Writer

Jun 20, 2010

Rather than retreat in the face of this impasse, global justice campaigners and leaders of the world’s poorer nations are coalescing around an ambitious demand. They say that while the wealthy countries act to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they must also help cover the costs of adapting to global warming: There is a climate debt, and it must be paid. For there to be climate justice, the rich nations must be prepared to pay some sort of reparations – the kind that would, among other things, enable Villa Lipe to rebuild its reservoir.

You Broke It, You Buy It

The idea of climate debt gained strength at a global grassroots summit that took place in Bolivia this spring. In the wake of what Bolivian President Evo Morales called “the failure of Copenhagen,” the Indigenous leader put out a call for civil society groups to discuss ideas for solving the growing climate crisis. About 35,000 people from 142 nations – including 47 official government delegations – answered the call and converged in Tiquipaya, Bolivia, for the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Though relatively new, the idea of climate debt is gaining coherence. The first part of the debt demand is straightforward: reparations via a transfer of funds from rich nations to poorer ones to deal with the consequences of climate change. The justification is also simple: Since the 20 percent of the population who lives in the North has saturated the air with greenhouse gases, they are responsible for helping the South adapt.

“You broke it, you buy it,” says Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who has emerged as one of the main spokespeople for the climate debt movement. Behind that snappy sound bite, however, lurk messy details. The first challenge is figuring out how much is actually owed, and to whom, and also by whom. The Bolivian government, for example, calculates that in 2009 its climate change-related costs represented at least 7 percent of its national budget. The UN’s 2009 World Economic and Social Survey says that funding for adaptation and mitigation ought to start now and be around 1 percent of total World Gross Product, about $500 billion a year.

But this isn’t an exact science. “There is a tendency these days to blame everything on climate change,” says Dirk Hoffman, director of the climate change program at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Bolivia’s largest university. He says that now every hard rain or day without becomes the fault of the industrialized world. “Bolivia has always been a land of extremes. There has always been drought and there has always been flooding.” What’s changed, he says, is the frequency and intensity of these natural occurrences. “We used to see these problems [of severe drought and flooding] every seven or nine years, and now we see them every year or every other year. And that is because of global warming and environmental changes caused by human activity.”

Even once reparation amounts are established, there are the questions of who pays, and how. Right now, the idea is that the money will come from industrialized nations. But it’s unclear whether each country would contribute based on its relative wealth – or its emissions rates. Some people have suggested that multinational corporations should make payments, as they have benefitted from unchecked carbon emissions for years. But how to make them pay?

On the receiving end, it’s assumed that reparations would be pooled in national pots administered by governments. But the governments of many poor nations are less-than-transparent, fueling concerns that funds would not end up being used for their intended purpose.

Mitigation North and South

Everyone needs to pay for their share

It has been said so many times but the only way to get people involved and conscious about their contribution to the climate change is to have them with their credit card. Unless people lose something important to them they'll never care. Pity that this important thing has to be money and not our own climate. Are we ever going to notice that the climate is real whereas money is something made by people to control the masses?

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