Although some of Bolivia’s other climate alterations may have debatable causes, scientists say that the cause of glacier melt is 95 percent global warming. “We need to have started working on solutions yesterday,” says Edson Ramirez, Bolivia’s top glaciologist, who has been studying the mountains since the early 1990s. Ramirez explains that one key solution is the construction of reservoirs, but that they take between five and ten years to build and are expensive.
But where there are losers, there are also winners. Some groups, even some nations, may benefit from the dislocations of climate change. Corporations that patent genetically modified seeds engineered to better withstand new climate conditions might see additional profits, for example. So might financial firms poised to broker the buying and selling of emissions credits. In the short term, at least, Canada and Russia might gain from better growing conditions and increased trade via an ice-free Arctic Ocean shipping route.
Further complicating the issue is that within the Global North there are groups or regions that will suffer as well. One example is the Alaska Natives, whose ecosystems are threatened by rising temperatures. Until now, climate debt demands have focused on drawing geopolitical lines between North and South, avoiding such complexities. But advocates acknowledge that recognizing, and addressing, those inequities will be key to any climate reparations system.
US Opposes Idea of Climate Reparations
Establishing the distinctions between those who have helped to cause or will benefit from climate change, and those who suffer its consequences is crucial to the reparations argument, advocates say, because only then does the theoretical basis of reparations make sense. It’s about what’s owed, not gifted.
“This is not about begging,” Angelica Navarro, Bolivia’s main climate change negotiator, repeats often. “This is about an obligation of those who are responsible for creating the problem to those who are going to suffer the consequences.”
For its part, the United States – the nation with the greatest historical emissions – is opposed to the idea of climate reparations. While President Obama has acknowledged that the United States must play a role in helping developing nations to cope with climate change, he has skirted the idea that it’s about righting historical wrongs. In Copenhagen, Todd Stern, the top US negotiator, testily said: “I actually completely reject the notion of debt or anything like that.”
Perhaps most infuriating to Bolivia and its allies is what they call the United States’ blackmailing when it comes to climate politics. In April, the United States announced that those nations unwilling to sign the Copenhagen Accord would have their climate aid revoked. So far, Bolivia has lost $3 million.
For many developing nations, the climate debt demand offers a way to address their climate change woes. Yet an irony shadows their claims: Some of the nations calling for climate reparations have economies based on extractive industries. In fact, the South is providing much of the fossil fuel the North uses to emit greenhouse gases.
The seeming paradox of critiquing industrialized nations for their carbon record while doing little to change their own policies caused great tension at the Bolivia summit. And that tension had a name: Mesa 18.
A few weeks before the summit, a coalition of Indigenous and social movement groups and NGOs requested that one more working group be added to the established 17: a roundtable on “social-environmental conflict” – in other words, a forum in which to discuss the fact that while Bolivia is leading the movement to demand the greening of industrialized nations, its own backyard is filled with oilrigs and pipelines.
The Bolivian government responded with a less-than-polite “no.” In the days leading up to the event, the government even tried denying that an 18th proposal had ever been put forward.