Climate reparations: It's the right thing to do — and will create a better world for everyone

Real climate justice is bad news for ExxonMobil, says philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò — but good news for the rest of us

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published December 31, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

People walk amid skeletons in a drought affected area in Mandera, Kenya on December 1, 2022. | A view of flood-hit areas as families struggle while winter comes in Mehar, Dadu District, Sindh province, Pakistan on October 22, 2022. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
People walk amid skeletons in a drought affected area in Mandera, Kenya on December 1, 2022. | A view of flood-hit areas as families struggle while winter comes in Mehar, Dadu District, Sindh province, Pakistan on October 22, 2022. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Last summer, devastating floods swept Pakistan, displacing 32 million people and leaving more than 500 children dead. As of this writing, according to UNICEF, "nearly 10 million girls and boys remain in need of immediate lifesaving support." Meanwhile, between June and August of 2022, record-breaking heat waves boiled much of Europe, with Pinhão, Portugal, reporting a high of 116.6℉ on July 14. Over in Tunisia, the high reached 118.4℉  that same month, while other parts of Africa suffered unprecedented weather events that took thousands of lives.

In Uganda, drought and famine caused 2,500 deaths, while six severe storms in 2022 killed "at least 890 people" in Madagascar and Mozambique. Nigeria experienced its "worst floods in a decade," causing over 600 deaths, while "nearly two million people in Chad were affected by floods in August and October." As I write this sentence in a small city in Germany, temperatures are expected to reach roughly 60℉ on Saturday, the last day of December, and the carbon dioxide detector on my office wall currently reads 450 parts per million (ppm), with the windows open.

I'm writing this article in a small city in Germany, where the temperature on the last day of 2022 will be roughly 60℉. The CO₂ detector on my office wall reads 450 ppm. (That's not good.)

This is the calm before the storm. It only gets worse from here. Yet hanging over the whole environmental predicament is a double asymmetry between the Global North and Global South: The former is overwhelmingly responsible for anthropogenic climate change, yet the latter will suffer its worst consequences — immense harms that will disproportionately affect infants and young children "living in low-income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America." Consider that Pakistan generated 0.6% of the world's CO₂ emissions in 2021. Uganda produced 0.02%, and Nigeria only 0.37%. These countries are almost carbon neutral. In contrast, the U.S. emitted 13.49%, and although China's CO₂ output is currently greater than any other country in the world, the U.S. has spewed more than twice as much of that heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere as China has since 1750. Historically speaking, 29% of total emissions have come from the U.S., 22% from European Union countries and 17.2% from China. Africa as a whole has contributed, in total, a mere 3.41%.

This is a profoundly unfair situation: Imagine placing a gas-powered generator inside a large apartment complex next to your single-family home. It runs day and night, and powers all the amenities in your own house — televisions, computers, heating, the stove, the lights, and so on — making it a very comfortable living space. However, the generator spews black exhaust into your neighbor's apartments, sickening countless children and adults who live there. Some try to move, and a few are able to do so, but most have nowhere else to go. Despite pleas for you to turn off the generator, you refuse — or, at best, agree to turn it down a little in the future. This is, roughly speaking, the global climate situation today: Those of us in the Global North are the people living comfortably at the cost of our less fortunate neighbors.

How can we rectify this situation? This question concerns a kind of social justice called climate justice, as "climate change threatens the effective enjoyment of a range of human rights including those to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture, and development" — to quote the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

One answer involves the largest historical polluters paying climate reparations to those most affected by pollution. While the idea of "reparations," defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged," might sound like a radical proposal, there's plenty of historical precedent. Germany, for example, made financial payments to Holocaust victims and their families. In 2019, Canada compensated Indigenous people "forcibly removed from their families and made to attend Indian residential schools to assimilate them into white society." And the U.S. government made financial restitution to Japanese Americans who were interned during the Second World War. Indeed, as one article on the issue states, "U.S. history is full of cases where the government paid reparations to its own citizens — even dating back to the colonial period."

But what exactly would climate reparations look like? What can the Global North do to pay off its "climate debt"? For answers, I called Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, who dedicates a chapter to the topic in his insightful book "Reconsidering Reparations." This transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

Perhaps I could start by asking you what your vision of climate reparations is.

The first thing to note is that the idea of reparations isn't new. For decades, people have been pushing for an approach to our ongoing ecological and climate crisis that takes into account both the legacy of colonialism in explaining the political order that we have and, in particular, the uneven contribution of the Global North versus Global South. Whether we're talking about "ecological debt," as groups like Acción Ecológica did in the '90s, or whether we're talking about broad perspectives on debt cancellation, which were part of reparations discourse, also as early as the '90s, with the Abuja Proclamation. Or consider the People's Agreement of Cochabamba — all of this has been in political discourse for quite some time. So I'm joining an ongoing conversation.

That preamble aside, I take climate reparations to be a reconstruction of our global system in the direction of serving people rather than portfolios, and broadly distributing the costs of that construction project toward the richer countries of the world, the big emitters, and those countries and corporations that had the most to do with yesterday's injustices in building the global political and economic system that we have now. That's the high-level conceptual description of it.

In terms of object-level policies, I think global phasing out of fossil fuels, construction of alternative regional solidarities within the energy sectors based on popularly controlled energy sources at multiple scales: from community-level to state-level control of renewable energy. Phasing out fossil fuels thus means phasing out private control over energy production.

I take climate reparations to be a reconstruction of our global system in the direction of serving people rather than portfolios, and broadly distributing the costs of that project toward the richer countries and big emitters.

Debt cancellation would also play a large role, to enhance public spending on social services. I think there would be other kinds of unconditional transfers of capital from places where it has been hyper-accumulated to places of lower levels of accumulation. The easiest framework for thinking about that is, of course, Global North to Global South, although there's obviously additional kinds of transfers that you might want. 

Debt cancellation itself would be an example, though there are many other opportunities to transfer money to households, or from rich states to poorer states. One big example that I've been talking about with folks is at the level of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where a kind of IMF-bucks is one way you could think about this policy vehicle with special drawing rights. That would be an extremely direct way to make unconditional cash transfers to poor countries — to Black and Indigenous parts of the world — which has some distinct political advantages. Those are some policy specifics.

What would this mean for the average person in the Global North? How would the average person's life change, or be affected, by climate reparations for the Global South? I suspect some might worry that reparations would impose non-trivial costs, which might lead them to oppose your proposals.

This is something I've wanted to speak to specifically, because I think — especially in the U.S. conversation about reparations — that people imagine reparations as involving white families being forced to sign a check over to Black families. So there's a picture of this as a kind of zero-sum contest between the people that will receive the most from reparations and the people who reparations will, in effect, be taken from. However, in the way I understand reparations, I don't think that's how it would work.

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One aspect of reparations, in the context of the climate crisis, is that rich countries should have to take on their responsibility of the global mitigation burden. Decarbonizing the world — what that might look like for people in the Global North if this vision of reparations were implemented is a lot of new jobs in green unionized sectors. It actually doesn't look like somebody coming over to take your toaster and hand it to a Black family if you're not Black, or an Indigenous family if you're not Indigenous. It looks like the government more broadly doing an industrial policy that's going to work out for most people in the world, or that could work out, depending on how it was designed. It won't work out for private fossil fuel executives; it won't necessarily work out for the investor class. I'm not denying that there would be losers in my version of the world. But I don't think that the people who would lose out would be the average person, even in the Global North.

Since you've written about reparations for the atrocities of slavery, in addition to climate reparations, I wonder if you could elaborate on the differences between these. What are their points of contact, and how do they diverge? Are climate reparations just a sort of forward-looking version of reparations in general? I recall this passage from your book, in which you write: "It is not that every aspect of today's global racial empire is rooted in the impacts of climate change. But every aspect of tomorrow's global racial empire will be." 

In "Reconsidering Reparations," I don't think I actually use the phrase "climate reparations." The book is explicitly about reparations for transatlantic slavery and colonialism, and the historical case for reparations in slavery is obviously independent of the climate crisis. It would be called for whether or not there is a climate crisis.

What I've been arguing for isn't that the climate crisis is why reparations are necessary, or that addressing this crisis will, in and of itself, address all the things that we're drawn to addressing by thinking about the serious history of race and empire, to which reparations is a response. I think what I'm pushing for is a kind of realism about the thrust for racial justice and, in particular, about what the conditions of racial justice are, politically speaking. So, even though the historical rationale for why reparations are called for doesn't depend on the climate crisis, I think actually achieving the political conditions required to respond to racial injustice — that might well depend on how we respond to the climate crisis.

Decarbonizing the world ... doesn't look like somebody coming over to take your toaster and hand it to a Black family if you're not Black, or an Indigenous family if you're not Indigenous.

Thus, even before we address all of the conceptual, historical and causal connections between the history of empire and the history of the climate crisis, of which there are many, I think we can just ask the question: What are the prospects of building a world that is more just to Black people, to Indigenous people, on a planet that's much hotter, in which there are increasingly zero-sum games between geopolitical powers that are not, for the most part, controlled by Black or Indigenous people? That is, in a world where a growing amount of society's resources are devoted to making the world safe for investment, especially in the various sectors responsible for climate change.

I don't think that's a world likely to produce good political results for anybody, but certainly not for the people lowest down on the hierarchies established by history.

In November, during the UN climate negotiations in Egypt, nearly 200 countries agreed to create a fund to help poor countries especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Climate activists are describing this as "climate reparations," although developing nations call it "compensation" while U.S. diplomats use the phrase "loss and damage resources." Either way, it seems like a breakthrough — something developing nations have been working toward for over three decades. What do you make of this?

It's certainly a step forward, in that the discussion can now move from whether or not there should be transfers in a specific area of loss and damage to the question of how large those transfers should be and what forms of transfers are acceptable. Pledges in and of themselves don't mean very much. Of course, as we've already seen, there was a promise from the rich countries of the world to transfer some $100 billion for the Green Climate fund, and that full amount has yet to materialize. What has materialized has often been in the form of loan guarantees, some of which aren't even concession loans but market-rate loans that actually create debt rather than the kinds of political opportunities that would benefit a politically serious operations project. So I think it's obviously too early to declare total victory, but we're in a meaningfully different place, politically speaking, on the climate and ecological crises than we were a few years ago or a few months ago, and I think that's significant.

We've already talked about what climate reparations would entail, and how they might impact the average person living in the Global North. For those of us who think there's a compelling moral case for climate reparations, what should we, as individuals, do to help advance the cause?

The most important steps don't involve "charity" at all. Climate reparations could mean taking down monopoly private utility companies in the Global North, and getting those under democratic control.

Obviously, redistribution is important. That means more progress on funding "loss and damage" would be good, and hence pressuring governments to back loss and damage payments is important for achieving climate justice and reparations globally. When you say "reparations," people often think about this in terms of charity — something that the haves give to the have-nots. There's an element of that, of course. But this way of understanding the political origins of climate injustice calls for broadly democratizing the energy sector and other important sectors around critical resources, which means some of the most important concrete steps that people can take anywhere, perhaps especially in the Global North, don't involve thinking on the model of "charity" at all. I think a step forward for climate reparations would be taking down monopoly private utility companies in the Global North, and getting those under public democratic control. That means that people can help confront the institutions ruining everyone's lives by fighting for themselves, not just donating to causes that are about others.

I think investment movements, especially on divest-invest strategies, are another set of concrete steps forward, and beyond trying to democratize energy systems in the sense of making them owned by public utilities rather than private ones, I think we need to democratize how those are administered. This means well-paying, union-controlled work — i.e., unionizing those sectors fighting for public control, not just by the state but, importantly, by the workers themselves. I think that's a particularly important path forward.

Last question. I'm curious about your thoughts on some of the other supposedly big threats facing humanity this century, such as engineered pandemics, or even artificial superintelligence. From the "longtermist" perspective, climate change isn't really all that bad — it probably doesn't pose what longtermists would call an "existential risk." It will disproportionately harm people in the Global South — everyone agrees about that — but there are, basically, bigger fish to fry. Longtermism, like climate reparations, is forward-looking, but wouldn't prioritize the sorts of things you so passionately advocate. Any thoughts on this?

The broadest thing I'd say is that there are often conversations about what kinds of risk the climate crisis poses in comparison to these other kinds of "discrete risks" of civilizational collapse or even human extinction. Sometimes people will say these other vectors of existential risks are more pressing, and more pressing in a direct manner. That may well be true. But I think the word "directly" is doing a lot of work here, because plausible scenarios for lots of other kinds of existential risk, maybe most notably nuclear war, are indirectly related to the climate crisis. 

I think most kinds of existential risks, if not all of them, are intimately linked to the climate crisis, because the climate is the thing that we live in. It's literally our ecology, the environment in which we make all the other decisions about whether or not to engineer pandemics, about the course of development of artificial intelligence and so on and so forth. Thus, I think it is completely legitimate to work on nuclear war as a problem space in and of itself. I also think there are serious and real risks from artificial intelligence, and those things merit study. But I wouldn't say that they outweigh the political importance of the climate crisis as a research priority. I just don't think that follows.

Even if it were the case that the climate crisis isn't an existential risk, there are lots of other reasons that you might want more people working on it than things that do pose direct existential risks. You might even want orders of magnitude more people working on it. And you might think that work on the climate crisis is more seriously underfunded, even if you didn't think it was an existential risk, given the fact that it's a large risk and the probability of it occurring is 1, since it's happening right now. That might well outweigh the expected value of the remote possibility of this or that existential risk. I think one might be persuaded by the scale of the problems caused by and related to the climate crisis as a reason to continue directing more money, more research, more attention toward it.

For a variety of reasons, there are more geopolitical considerations to figure out. There are more social considerations to figure out than, say, the relatively small ecology of people who are in a position to work on artificial intelligence, or the relatively small number of people who have the nuclear launch codes. There's just more to do with the climate crisis, and more people who could possibly be part of doing it. The problem is just larger. So that might be the reason it should be ranked above other kinds of existential risks in terms of recruiting attention from researchers and the broader public, even though the probability of climate change directly causing civilizational collapse or human extinction might be smaller than other ways of telling that story.

I just don't find the idea that the climate crisis isn't a plausible existential risk to some people changing my opinion much about whether or not we should prioritize it. I think it's very overdetermined that this crisis is more worthy of sustained attention from more people than these other completely legitimate but, in my view, smaller areas of risk. But all those things — pandemics, nuclear proliferation, etc. — are very worth studying.

By Émile P. Torres

Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity. They have published on a wide range of topics, including machine superintelligence, emerging technologies and religious eschatology, as well as the history and ethics of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is "Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation" (Routledge). For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter." For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

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Climate Change Climate Crisis Existential Risk Interview Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò Philosophy Reparations