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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

The second demand of climate debt campaigners is that industrialized nations take steps to reduce their emissions. Jubilee South, a major voice in the climate debt movement, says that wealthy nations must reduce emissions by at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, as opposed to the nonbinding emissions pledges established by the Copenhagen Accord. This reduction or greater, they say, could help in the effort to limit temperature increases to 1 degree Celsius, which would offer hope to island nations, as well as communities that depend on glacial melt.

The importance of this second pillar, activists say, cannot be underestimated. Right now, however, there is little hope that developed nations will meet such an ambitious objective since the emissions reduction goals set out in Copenhagen would allow for temperature increases of up to three or four degrees Celsius.

Within the discussion of greenhouse gas reductions there are also criticisms of the status quo. “We cannot continue a system that allows climate criminals to be paid,” says Nnimmo Bassey, Nigeria-born president of Friends of the Earth International, referring to the emissions trading market, which allows polluters to buy the rights to continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The third pillar of the climate debt argument is mitigation – assisting poorer nations to put in place renewable energy infrastructure, for example. Mitigation proposals would ensure that areas with little to no electricity or fuel would be able to put in solar panels or windmills to provide power rather than setting up gas- or oil-dependent systems. On the whole, renewable energy technology and expertise is more advanced in the industrialized world. So, say climate debt advocates, the North should share this knowledge to help the South develop sustainably.

The idea could expand to include large-scale clean energy projects that help more than individual communities move toward a greener future. “Right now the biggest barriers to Bolivia developing its lithium are lack of infrastructure and the need for technology transfer,” says Naomi Klein, author of international bestsellers No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. “But why should Bolivia shoulder these burdens alone? The industrialized world, which created the climate crisis and has a vested interest in Bolivia’s green development, should share the cost burden as a form of climate debt repayment. It’s mitigation, but on a mass level.”

Lithium is the world’s lightest metal and given its energy storage capacity, virtually every hybrid and electric car on the planet uses a lithium-ion battery. The majority of the world’s reserves are underneath Bolivia’s vast salt flats. The industry is just beginning to develop, so far financed entirely by the government. At some point it will need help. “We know that we will need outside assistance,” says José Pimental, Bolivia’s mining minister. “And so our doors are wide open to offers and proposals.”

Changing the Debate

For the native Aymara people, the snow-capped peaks that ring the 12,000 foot high city of La Paz are not just mountains – they are achachilas, or mountain gods, who provide protection, symbolize honor, and give strength to the Indigenous who have always lived under their gaze. Now, as the great white masses melt down to bare rock, the Aymara speak of impending crisis.

“Our achachilas are disappearing,” Quispe told me, “and that can’t mean anything good for pachamama [mother earth].” Or for his fellow highland residents. In addition to their cultural and religious significance, these glaciers provide a crucial 20 percent of the drinking water for almost one quarter of Bolivia’s nine million residents.

The grave situation is an example, Klein says, of the environmental movement turning from “green to red.” She explains: “We have moved on from the ‘kumbaya’ stage of environmentalism, in which we believed that climate change transcended identity issues, to a phase in which we recognize that climate change is only going to exacerbate inequality.”

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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