Southern countries call for climate reparations
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last year, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley address an assembly of world leaders on the state of international climate action. His message: “Try harder.” She condemned the failure of wealthier nations to provide the resources that poorer, climate-vulnerable countries need to adapt to a warming world. “Put simply,” she asked, “when will leaders lead? The Biden administration has promised to restore the United States to its rightful role as world leader on climate change, but charisma alone cannot give the impression that the White House is busy enough to distract from its actual record. This year, at the Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank in DC currently in progress, the United States has the possibility of reversing. The Biden administration can show real commitment by putting debt cancellation for climate action on the agenda.
Beyond the fact that the United States has constantly lack to pass comprehensive national climate legislation, it regularly hampers global efforts: by omitting fair share efforts to reduce emissions, underfunding global climate finance and blocking structural reforms to global institutions like the International Monetary Fund that could undermine its outsized control over global economic and, increasingly, environmental decision-making. These actions are all the more consistent in the midst of calls from all over the world, including countries of the South, to climatic repairs: a package of financing and debt cancellation that begins to compensate countries for the incalculable social, economic and environmental damage that rich countries have caused in the world, while providing fiscal space and resources to build a future safer and more prosperous.
At this stage, no one can doubt the urgency of acting on the climate, as shown by the latest IPCC analyzes to the world far from course from a trajectory at 1.5 degrees Celsius—pass this point would greatly increase the likelihood of extreme heat waves and flooding, while damaging coastlines and coral reefs. While rich countries like the United States have largely contributed to this trend, the impact of climate change is felt most intensely in countries that have contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions. This injustice follows a litany of historical and current wrongs, centuries of colonial plunder and slavery that enriched Europe, then the United States, at the expense of the South, the austerity measures of the 1980s and 1990s. in response. to the Third World debt crisis, which has stifled development and locked many countries into decades of debt dependence. The results of this dependency, as well as the economic impacts of the pandemic, materialize in a new debt crisiswith 58 out of 65 low-income countries that are between moderate risk of debt distress and widespread default.
Many of these indebted countries are African countries or small island developing states in the Pacific and Caribbean, regions disproportionately vulnerable to climate shocks. Climate-vulnerable countries already pay more to borrow money than their less vulnerable counterparts. This adds to the well-documented “Premium Africawhich sees African countries paying more to borrow money than comparable countries elsewhere. Climate reparations are a way to begin to undo past, present and even future injustices, as the greenhouse gases emitted today will destabilize the climate for decades to come.
Jhe rules of the global economic game are written to maintain “a level playing field” – but keeping the playing field “level” after starting positions have been shaped by centuries of exploitation only locks in unequal economic relations . The imbalance is pushing low- and middle-income countries into unsustainable debt to meet their daily needs, which increasingly include urgent climate action. In 2021, the Jubilee Debt Campaign revealed that 34 of the poorest countries are spending almost six times more on the debt as they are on climate change adaptation and mitigation. That is why organizations around the world, including the African Forum and Network on Debt and Developmentthe CARICOM Reparations Committeeand the Jubilee Debt Campaign, called for debt cancellation and an overhaul of the global debt framework to create new opportunities for climate action. These growing voices are based on resistance to the international debt regime led by governments like those of Bolivia and Cuba. Social movements in Latin America dating back to the 1980s made similar calls, as did the 2010 popular agreement in Cochabambawhich called on developed countries to “ensure an equitable distribution of atmospheric space, taking into account the climate debt of emissions from developed countries to developing countries”.
Debt justice for climate reparations would stand in stark contrast to the actions the United States and other wealthy nations have taken since the pandemic began. In November 2020, Zambia defaulted on its sovereign debt as the effects of the pandemic met a wave of debt repayments that creditors, including the World Bank, refused to delay or restructure. With its public finances in tatters amid the biggest public health emergency in generations, Zambia has been forced to turn to the IMF for emergency funding. Since then, the country has been negotiating with the fund. Zambia was forced to reduce its 20% public spending in the midst of an economic crisis to comply with IMF loan conditions, in addition to reduce mining royalties to attract new investors and put important priorities, such as climate change adaptation, on the back burner.
This scenario is taking place all over the world. Argentina, Ecuador and Lebanon all defaulted in 2020, and Sri Lanka is about to fail at any time. Eighty-five countries have needed emergency financial support from the IMF in the past two years, and Oxfam showed that 73 of these countries faced borrowing conditions reminiscent of 1980s-style structural adjustment, including mandatory austerity, despite proven failure of this approach. Meanwhile, some countries eligible for the Debt Service Suspension Initiative – the flagship debt relief program that wealthier countries have turned to during the pandemic – have opted out of participating, fear that this will show weakness to global investors and, in turn, increase future borrowing costs. Even those who participated in the DSSI found little relief. The program mainly delayed repayments rather than canceling debt, while private creditors continued to extract payments from vulnerable countries. The World Bank itself opted out, forcing borrowers to continue making payments.
If we are looking for a model to follow as the world heats up and debt becomes increasingly unmanageable, the current approach to ad hoc measures and colonial debt administration is not going to cut it. Meaningful debt justice for climate action is unlikely to take shape without American leadership – leadership of the kind demonstrated in the early 2000s with the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. and follow-up programs. Although far from perfect, these IMF-administered debt relief frameworks have demonstrated that creditor countries, led by the United States, can agree on debt cancellation, and that when debts are cancelled, countries can use this fiscal space to invest in public goods like health. , education and infrastructure. These building blocks of resilience will be needed as rainfall becomes less predictable, temperatures rise and storms strengthen. Countries whose debt has been canceled under the HIPC Initiative and subsequent universally reported initiatives increased spending on poverty reduction measures, sometimes substantially. A modern debt justice program could open the doors to even more domestic spending while solving the problems of previous debt relief programs, in particular the fact that private creditors often refuse to play ball.
But climate reparations must be more than just debt justice – it must move both sides of the ledger. The state of international climate finance is ashamed. Rich countries fell short of their climate finance target of $100 billion a year, and the majority of what they counted as climate finance came in the form of either increased debt or private investment profit-making ventures. The United States and other wealthy countries must not only keep the promises they have already made, but also provide radically increased subsidies with minimum conditions for climate-resilient development. Biden’s $11 billion climate funding request in the 2023 budget is an encouraging sign, but he must fight for its inclusion against the inevitable fossil fuel-fueled backlash from some corners of Congress.
In addition to international actions, passing comprehensive national climate legislation would not only make possible the litany of goals that a Green New Deal could achieve; it is a question of international solidarity. As countries in the Global South grapple with mounting financial debt, the United States continues to accumulate what groups like Acción Ecológica and Pacto Ecosocial del Sur have called “ecological debt”: the massively unequal share of the productive and resilient capacity of the Earth that the North in general – and the United States in particular – consumes. The United States must stop digging this hole, not only for the sake of vulnerable communities at home – which are disproportionately poorer communities of color – but for all communities around the world who are suffering because of its climate colonialism.