Don't Mention the Climate Debt

03/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I just attended an excellent report back from the Copenhagen climate talks fiasco. The speakers included Payal Parekh, climate director from my own organization, International Rivers, and representatives from other great Bay Area enviro organizations,, Rainforest Action Network and EcoEquity.

The packed room spoke to the interest in the topic even on an El Niño-sodden Berkeley night. Jamie Henn showed videos of the inspiring work of in catalyzing demos and media stunts around the world, displayed stats showing the unprecedented spike in global media coverage of climate issues in December, and spoke rousingly of the fabulous energy of the growing youth climate movement and of the huge climate justice march in the streets of Copenhagen. A theme of the night was that Copenhagen, while disappointing, had not been a total failure, and that the task now was to transmit the activist energy and huge leap in global public awareness forward to the next big UN climate jamboree in Mexico in late 2010.

The always thought-provoking and engaging Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity bashed US climate activists for failing to "prepare the American people for the need to meet their obligations to the rest of the world."

Tom is one of the authors of the concept of Greenhouse Development Rights, a framework for calculating how much rich countries ought to pay the poor to help them convert to clean energy and adapt to the impacts of climate change. GDRs is a sophisticated approach in which the global effort needed to stabilize the climate is divided up on the basis of historical responsibility and capacity to pay.

Tom, and the growing number of adherents to GDRs, and to the more general concept of "climate debt," have an undeniable case when it comes to fairness. The high polluters have gotten wealthy using up the available carbon budget of the atmosphere and should compensate the low polluters for the damage caused as well as for the fact that the high-carbon development path is no longer available to poor countries if we are not to toast the planet.

Unfortunately when it comes to politics, it would be a really bad idea for US climate activists to be shouting from the rooftops about how much money the US owes the rest of the world. Getting action on climate change in the US is, to say the least, not easy. And the centrists and independents who need to be persuaded to get on board with emission cutting action are going to be a lot less likely to do so if they're simultaneously handed a massive bill for damages. And the bill for the US would be massive - $275 billion in 2020 according to the GDRs math.

Of course leftists will rightly argue, and Tom and his colleagues do, that $275 billion isn't a big deal compared with, say, a military budget of more than half a trillion a year.
But, no matter how much we wish it were so, the US military budget is not about to be slashed in order to pay our planetary dues. Even in the era of big bank bailouts, $275 billion is still frighteningly huge, and especially so when state, local and household budgets are being slashed; millions of families have lost, or are losing, their homes; one-in-ten US Americans are unemployed; and the national debt is going into the stratosphere.

The GDRs approach is not just a political non-starter in the US. It shouldn't even be allowed to approach the starting blocks, probably not even enter the stadium. A public campaign for climate debt payments would not only fail to succeed in terms of generating the funds, but it would also help the climate wreckers discredit the more important job of cutting emissions. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and the rest of the American Taliban would surely wet themselves with delight if there was any serious noise from the left calling for billions of dollars in climate reparations for poor countries. (Tom stresses that GDRs is not about paying a debt, but "is based on a notion of climate obligations - in the sense of 'duty' - that explicitly includes considerations of capacity and thus of class." It's an important distinction, though not one likely to keep Glenn and Sarah's underwear dry.)

In fact, as Tom himself has pointed out on his Grist blog, Chuck Norris, former martial arts movie star and darling of the looney teabaggers, has already started using discussion of climate funds as a foil for his paranoid populism. Norris said in November that the Copenhagen conference "was less about saving the planet and more about lining the pockets of globalist elites."

That the rightists haven't made more hay on the climate debt issue is presumably because the "official" discourse on climate from Obama and liberal Democrats and environmentalists has been to stress green jobs, green jobs, green jobs, and energy security. And this is exactly what climate and energy messaging needs to be if there is to be any hope of action in the US remotely close to what is adequate.

Tom argues that a global climate deal will only work if it's fair, and a fair deal requires a huge amount of GDR-style reparations. My response is that a climate deal will only work if the US starts seriously cutting its emissions (a theme of the recent report-back in Berkeley was that the international negotiations were being held hostage by the inability of the US, the world's largest historic polluter, to act on its capacity for ambitious emissions cuts).

Of course the US does owe a whoppingly big climate debt. And some funds do need to be found for climate aid. Most important (and easiest to defend politically) is aid for climate adaptation for the poorest and most vulnerable countries. We helped make the lethal mess and we've got to help people cope with it. But even money for adaptation should not have a prominent role in public messaging on climate in the US.

Tolstoy famously believed that it was the existence of the rich that was the real cause of Russian poverty, and that the best way for the rich to help the poor was not to come up with poverty relief projects, but to get off their backs. Likewise the first priority for the US in helping those who will suffer the most from climate change is to get off their backs by slashing our emissions -- and by doing so bringing down the cost and furthering innovations in green technologies, building a "green tech" lobby to challenge the might of the "brown tech" conventional energy lobby, and showing that economic success and declining emissions can go hand-in-hand.

And if the US public can be convinced that decarbonization is actually in their short term economic interest, it will greatly weaken the teabaggers, strengthen the economy -- and eventually make it more politically realistic for the US to pay some of its climate debt.