Reparations, debt cancellation, and climate justice are all regular features in climate solutions—but what do they mean in practice?
Campaigners around the world calling for COP26 have been given renewed attention. “climate reparations” to be given to the Global South by the Global North—but what does this mean?
How can climate reparations be used to fight for climate justice?
No fear—gal-dem is here to help cut through the noise, with help Five climate activists from the Global South.
What is it? Are Climate reparations
Climate reparations are a request for money from the Global North to the Global South to address the historical contributions made by the Global North towards climate change. “It is important that the Global North own up to that responsibility of paying what they are due to the Global South,” says Nomhle Senene, a climate activist from South Africa organizing with Fridays for Future MAPA (“most affected people and areas”).
In fact, the Global North countries are responsible for 92% of excess global carbon emissions. Despite this, countless studies have shown that countries across the Global South are facing the sharpest end of the consequences when it comesTo climate change—from severe heat waves in India to flooding in KenyaAnd hurricanes in Nicaragua.
“Climate reparations are also about the need for acknowledgment and accountability for the loss of land and culture—and how that has affected us in the Global South—as a result of climate change,” Farzana Faruk Jhumu, a climate activist organizing with Fridays for Future Bangladesh, adds.
Climate reparations are characterized by acknowledgment and accountability for the destruction caused in part by the Global North. Climate reparations that are accountable are different from those that are not. “climate aid.” “Historically, the Global North has this debt to us, and that’s why they have to pay,” Farzana tells gal-dem.
What could climate reparations actually look like in practice?
Climate reparations can take many forms. Mimi Sheller, dean at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s The Global School, has written about a “corrective justice” path, refers to a negotiation among governments internationally.
The moral responsibility of those most responsible in the climate crisis is addressed by a model of corrective justice. The legal basis for making payments is that (the Global North), pays compensation to the Global South.
Sheller describes one proposed practical mechanism—an “international compensation commission,” which would receive claims from countries affected and provide money that could be used for things like disaster risk reduction, insurance, and adaptation.
She also outlines a second form, which would involve suing multinational corporations responsible for climate destruction—such as oil companies—under international law, with the money recouped being channeled into similar initiatives as above.
No matter how climate reparations will be given, those most affected in the Global South by climate change should have the right to decide how the funds are spent.
“There are countries within the Global South that have regimes and military rule,” Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, co-founder of Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY), says. “We need systems of monitoring and evaluation; otherwise, the money will go into the deep pockets of corruption.”
Climate reparations: Why are they important for climate justice?
The call for climate reparations is one of the key elements within demands for climate justice—a framing that places justice and the movement toward an equitable world at the core of climate activism.
“Climate reparations directly benefit those affected by systems of oppression, such as colonialism and racism—i.e., those who are also the most affected by the climate crisis,” Regina Cabrera, a climate activist with Fridays for Future Mexico, says.
“We can’t talk about reparations if we don’t also talk about inequality and how the economic system destroys communities all around the world, and marginalize—for example—Indigenous communities, racialized communities, and queer people,” fellow FFF Mexico activist Náme Villa del Ángel adds.
“For example, Haiti [was]France’s debt system has caused economic ruin for centuries. We are witnessing the same thing in Latin America right now.
“Argentina is a country that has been deprived over and over again by debt in the last 20, 30 years. Mexico is another example of a country where a large percentage of our exports go directly to the United States.”
“Reparations are a way of understanding our political context through the framework of decolonisation.”
Climate reparations are not a panacea but are better understood as one key part of a system of wider measures—including debt cancellation, a just transition away from fossil fuels, and ending corporate impunity—to achieve climate justice globally.
Climate reparations could be a starting point to radically reorient our world towards climate justice. When we speak of reparative injustice, we bring to light the wider injustices inherent in capitalism and Neocolonialism.
How can climate reparations be made to serve justice for the Global South?
Currently, the majority of climate finance given to the Global South by the Global North is in the form of loans—71% of climate finance was loan-based in 2019. “When we take on loans, we have to pay interest—which means paying extra money,” Farzana explains.
“The emitter countries should be paying us, because they are the ones causing this climate crisis,” she says. “Not the other way round, as it is currently due to interest rates.”
Indeed, the use of loans simply accrues profits for the Global North as it collects interest while exacerbating the already sizable debt of the Global South—further entrenching global inequity between the North and South.
The Jubilee Debt Campaign calculated this year that low-income countries—many of which are located in the Global South—spend five times more on external debt payments than on projects to protect their citizens from the impacts of climate change.
How can climate reparations be a just solution?
“Climate reparations should not be given in loans; they should be grant based,” Nadiah says. Grant-based climate finance could help to avoid further ensnaring the Global South regions within these deeply unjust systems of global debt.
What role does debt cancellation play in the context climate reparations?
Climate reparations and justice also play a crucial role in debt cancellation. This goes beyond climate finance debts. “If we do want to cancel debt, it should not only be the ones related to climate—we need to look at debt as a whole,” Nadiah says.
“When we talk about debt in the Global South, we need to understand that it will not be canceled just by asking politely,” Náme adds. “[Debt]The Global North, via IMF and World Bank, intends to rely on the Global South for their dependence on the Global North.
“A vote from the Global North [in these institutions] is equivalent of eight people in the Global South. They are therefore not democratic institutions. They are colonial.”
We need to stop listening to the Global North, says Náme, and instead actively organize to disrupt its way of controlling our places. This will require that we rethink the economic policies of the Global South. In addition, she adds, there has to be “community solidarity economics between Global South countries,” which will “put pressure on the Global North to cancel the debt.”
To achieve true climate justice, climate reparations must be combined with debt cancellation. It is impossible to achieve reparative justice without fundamentally changing the economic environment that keeps the Global South structurally indebted.
What is the Global South’s activist work to support the call for climate compensations?
“I work with a lot of Indigenous communities here in Malaysia as a grassroots organizer, and I do some policy work too,” Nadiah tells gal-dem.
“We get [the communities] to document as much as they can about what they’ve been losing due to climate change. I think it’s really important to document this, and some of the ways that we show it to the world is through creative means—music, documentaries, and art.”
Nomhle’s work, too, in South Africa involves creating spaces in the conversation for those most affected by climate change to be heard, and empowerment through education around issues of climate justice.
“I work in an education alliance, talking about climate change. We have poverty, hunger, a water crisis—so sometimes climate change isn’t recognized as the most pressing issue, because there’s so much going on,” she says.
“Obviously, it is a serious issue, and it is affecting countries like South Africa. We need to see that these issues are connected to climate change and wider socioeconomic issues as well.”
How can we show solidarity in the Global North and support the call for climate reparations
You can create change by reflecting on your position and place in the world. “You need to acknowledge your privilege to show solidarity,” Farzana says. “Don’t have a savior complex, and adopt a mindset of learning and relearning.”
Such organizations include Transnational Accountability & Justice Initiative, War on Want, and the Jubilee Debt Campaign have a wealth of resources and do campaigning work around these issues that you can get involved with.
The COP26 Coalition also had an exciting array of fringe events and actions—both in-person and virtually—across the duration of the COP26 conference.
“It is important for us to form alliances between people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized from the Global North and the Global South,” Regina says. “Because we are the people who can create change.”
When discussing climate action, it is crucial that we continue to place the voices of the Global South’s communities and people at the center.
“The Global South are not voiceless—we are just not heard,” says Nomhle. “We can use our own voices; we don’t need anyone to speak for us.”
This story first appeared in gal-dem It is part of Covering Climate Now – a global journalism collaboration that strengthens coverage on the climate story.
Freelance journalist. Anita has experience in third-sector communications. She has worked in media roles at non-profit organizations and digital communications.
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