How Canada should think about climate reparations

Loss and damage will be central to global climate talks at the upcoming COP27 in Egypt
Photo: Houses falling into the water in Odessa, Ukraine, as a result of coastal erosion. Image from Depositphotos.
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Imagine your country has just been hammered by a sudden extreme climate event, say a violent storm or an unrelenting, record-shattering downpour. The systems you rely on for transportation, energy, food, and water lie in rubble. Homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals are flattened or drowned. Many people have lost their lives. Even more have been displaced.

And imagine, also, that yours is a poor country already struggling to meet everyone’s essential needs.

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The options to rebuild after the disaster are therefore few. Should your country devote some of its scarce resources to that effort, knowing that will mean diverting them from other underfunded priorities, like healthcare and education? Should it sell off some remaining public assets? Should it issue a humanitarian appeal knowing how unreliable and short-term a solution that can be? Should it look somewhere for loans, knowing that it will need, somehow, to repay them?

As the climate crisis worsens, as places throughout Pakistan endure in recent days the latest devastations of a more dangerous climate, more and more countries and communities are having to ask questions like these. And it’s this poverty of options that has reenergized the discussion around climate reparations.

Reparations as ‘worldmaking’

Reparations can take a few forms, some more politically palatable than others.

The kinds that people tend to think of most readily — those where a party that is found guilty for damages is forced to pay out financial compensation to a victim — also tend to be the most contentious when damages in question are the result of long historical processes, as they are with climate change.

Say Canada is deemed a guilty party. Would each taxpayer need to scrounge up a few extra thousand dollars every year to pay for climate damages throughout the world? Are they each also responsible for compensating the damages caused by gases the country emitted before they were born or moved here?

That will mean taking something back from those in the economy’s vertiginous heights.

Fortunately there are other ways to think about the problem. In his recent book Reconsidering Reparations, American philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò argues compellingly for what he calls a constructive view of reparations.

Under this approach, reparations are less about calculating and paying out some precise compensatory sum owed to wronged parties, and more about building a just world for all — “worldmaking,” as he puts it. Who is to take on which responsibilities in constructing that world has to do with how a party has been advantaged by the current system built on colonialism and fossil-fuelled capitalism — what Táíwò calls “global racial empire.”

Canada would certainly be advantaged by that system. So let’s imagine what it would look like if the country were serious about climate reparations.

Resources of repair

To construct that better world, we’re going to need financial resources. But that doesn’t mean every individual taxpayer would be on the hook.

In neoliberal systems like ours, where the economy is designed to make wealth evaporate from below and recondense and reconcentrate at the top, that will mean taking something back from those in the economy’s vertiginous heights. Not only could that excess wealth be put towards less irrational uses than filling already overstuffed pockets in the midst of the climate crisis, but it is also precisely what has given the rich the means to disproportionately drive climate change.

The more carbon-polluting lifestyles their wealth allows them to lead is one part of the problem. But new research tells us that the bulk of the emissions the rich are responsible for results from the investment capital that they provide for carbon-intensive infrastructure and activities (think factories, pipelines, etc.).

In addition, then, to new taxes on ultra wealth and on the consumption of superfluous luxury goods, taxes on fossil fuel assets and stock dividends would be an easily justifiable and politically palatable way of raising revenue for repairing our world.

The actual value of the climate finance that developed countries claim credit for providing came out to a meagre $21 to 25 billion, callously short of the annual $100 billion they had for years promised to deliver by 2020.

And of course there’s the fossil fuel industry itself. “Odious profits” is the term sometimes (if not frequently enough) used to underscore the immoral nature of the industry’s profits: the process of generating them is extracting a heavy toll from us, particularly those most vulnerable to climate disasters.

What is more, those same profits have been dedicated over the last generation to distorting our democracies through lobbying efforts, campaign contributions, and the financing of climate change denialism — all of it calculated to block the exits from a fossil fuelled world. There is therefore every reason to recover some part of those profits to put towards worldbuilding, particularly at a time when fossil fuel companies are reaping windfall profits (an opportunity, incidentally, the current Liberal government seems ready to blow).

Recovering the billions in taxes that corporations avoid paying every year is another obvious place to start.

Reparation through diplomacy

But it won’t be enough for Canada alone to increase its own climate financing. Its climate reparation responsibilities would also involve promoting a more just global politics with respect to getting the rest of the developed world to deliver to poorer nations the resources needed for providing food and energy without greenhouse gas emissions (“mitigation,” in the policy lingo), for preparing their communities to withstand the worsening effects of climate change (“adaptation”), and for rebuilding following climate disasters (“loss and damage”).

An October 2022 Oxfam report suggests how much work remains to be done on the climate finance front.

The bulk of the emissions the rich are responsible for results from the investment capital that they provide for carbon-intensive infrastructure and activities.

A staggering 71 per cent of public climate finance to developing countries in 2020 came not as grants, but as loans to be repaid with interest. As Oxfam put it, “Developing countries are being forced to take out loans to respond to a climate crisis they did least to cause, while developed countries claim credit for finance they are not providing.” (This is at a time when a third of the world’s poorest countries are spending more to repay their debt to already wealthy countries than they are on education for their population.)

Meanwhile, the actual value of the climate finance that developed countries claim credit for providing came out to a meagre $21 to 25 billion, callously short of the annual $100 billion they had for years promised to deliver by 2020. And the costs of responding to climate change are rapidly climbing.

A Canada taking its reparation duties seriously would work to bolster the global institutional arrangements that can efficiently and reliably deliver enough climate financing to those who need it. Loss and damage is set to be a major issue in this year’s global climate talks (COP27). One way that Canada could start taking on its worldmaking responsibilities is by advancing the recommendations from a June report from Oxfam, which, among other things, urges countries to set up a system of reliable annual contributions for action on loss and damage and to establish a global loss and damage financial facility.

Values of a more just world

We should also consider, in closing, how a worldmaking approach to reparations also involves a deep examination of the core values shaping our world through our politics and economics.

Some of those values — endless acquisition-extractivism-expansionism, “self-regardism,” supremacism — were instrumental in creating the current, unjust global system. And not only are they still with us today, but, in these “post-empathy” times, there are movements actively attempting to make those values the preeminent ones in our society.

Alongside the hard work of resisting those movements, it’s also necessary to identify the values necessary to construct a better world.

One to start with is the value of recognizing others beyond just ourselves.

Whether we call it empathy, compassion, or solidarity, it’s this value that directs us to shape a world in which every person truly matters, one where all have rights to what is materially necessary for a decent and dignified human life. It’s this value that will ensure that as climate disasters worsen, communities will not be left with a painful shortage of options to withstand and recover from them.

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