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Payment of Climate Debt, by Rich Polluting Nations to Poorer Victims, a Complex Issue

Justice advocates roil debate by questioning role of extractive industries that provide path to economic development

By Guest Writer

Jun 20, 2010

By By Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, Earth Island Journal

When the scale of the climate crisis became clear, scientists and environmental organizations said that the threat was a global phenomenon. We are all in this together, the chorus sang, and this climate change madness will make us finally realize that we share a single fragile planet.

But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that climate change is anything but an equal opportunity disaster.

The island nations of the Maldives, Kirabati, and Tuvalu are likely to slip beneath the sea as ocean levels rise in concert with global temperatures. In the Chinese province of Gansu, drought and sandstorms have intensified over the last three decades, leaving subsistence farmers with dead crops and no water.

In Uganda, unpredictable droughts and floods have made the country’s once-stable growing seasons erratic. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are causing floods in some areas of India and drinking water shortages in others. And there are victims in the United States as well: The Alaska Native community of Kivalina is on the verge of disappearing as the spit of land on which it’s located steadily erodes with rising tides.

What all of these places have in common is that they are poor.

The Village of Villa Lipe, Bolvia

It was around 3 p.m. on a chilly March afternoon when residents of the highland village of Villa Lipe, Bolivia heard the noise. First, a sound like rock cracking, then water gushing – so they started to run. Within a few hours, the reservoir above the town had ruptured: Thousands of gallons of water had flooded away, hundreds of livestock were dead, and several homes had been damaged. Luckily, no one in the 200-family village that sits at the base of the Illampu glacier had been killed. “Thank God it happened at three in the afternoon and we all heard the noise,” says Macario Quispe, whose parents still live in the Villa Lipe home where he grew up. “If that reservoir had broken in the middle of the night, the entire village might have been washed away.”

Villa Lipe never needed a reservoir in the past. Annual six-month rains and glacier runoff had always been sufficient for irrigation and household consumption. But as Bolivia’s rainy seasons began to get shorter, local residents found their water supply lacking and decided on a backup system. In 2005, the municipal government financed the materials for the reservoir, which the townspeople built with their own hands. Unfortunately, they miscalculated the depth. This year’s abnormally heavy rain, falling within a short period of time, created more weight than the structure could bear. Now, says Quispe, the town must not only repair the reservoir, but, in the custom of his Aymara people, all Villa Lipe families must contribute 100 bolivianos (about $13) toward replacing the lost livestock and repairing the damaged homes of their fellow villagers.

“That’s a lot of money for us,” Quispe said recently, before asking me whether I knew of any nonprofit organizations in the United States that might want to contribute to the reconstruction. “It would really help if there was money we could access to help us deal with how everything is changing,” he noted, his voice trailing off.

The unfairness is almost suffocating: Bolivia’s glaciers are melting, yet its carbon footprint is 0.17 percent of the world total. As global justice groups point out, the four-fifths of the world’s population who will bear the brunt of climate change are responsible for only one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The global majority’s lack of infrastructure and financial resources to cope with impending climate disasters is, from a humanitarian view, terrifying. From a political standpoint, the majority’s lack of power to change the curve of greenhouse gas emissions is equally troubling. The fate of civilization is in the hands of the industrialized nations, yet they avoid responsibility.

Rather than retreat in the face of this impasse, global justice campaigners and leaders of the world’s poorer nations are coalescing around an ambitious demand. They say that while the wealthy countries act to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they must also help cover the costs of adapting to global warming: There is a climate debt, and it must be paid. For there to be climate justice, the rich nations must be prepared to pay some sort of reparations – the kind that would, among other things, enable Villa Lipe to rebuild its reservoir.

You Broke It, You Buy It

The idea of climate debt gained strength at a global grassroots summit that took place in Bolivia this spring. In the wake of what Bolivian President Evo Morales called “the failure of Copenhagen,” the Indigenous leader put out a call for civil society groups to discuss ideas for solving the growing climate crisis. About 35,000 people from 142 nations – including 47 official government delegations – answered the call and converged in Tiquipaya, Bolivia, for the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Though relatively new, the idea of climate debt is gaining coherence. The first part of the debt demand is straightforward: reparations via a transfer of funds from rich nations to poorer ones to deal with the consequences of climate change. The justification is also simple: Since the 20 percent of the population who lives in the North has saturated the air with greenhouse gases, they are responsible for helping the South adapt.

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