Climate Reparations—A New Demand

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on June 26, 2014.

At the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009, leaders from more than a hundred nations gathered to consider an agenda that included a massive transfer of money from developed countries to the Third World.  The developed states were tagged to provide $130 billion by 2020 to help developing nations deal with the consequences of global warming.  The proposed transfer was widely discussed as “reparations” for the damage caused by use of fossil fuels in the developed world.

The Copenhagen proposal went down in ignominious defeat.  A motley collection of Third World countries brought the idea up again in 2013 in the run-up to the UN’s climate conference in Warsaw, but by then whatever impetus the idea had had was gone.  President Obama instructed the U.S. delegate to oppose it.  The State Department explained:

“It’s our sense that the longer countries look at issues like compensation and liability, the more they will realize this isn’t a productive avenue for the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] to go down.”

The U.S. Government may have sidled away from this climate change compensation scheme but the underlying idea hasn’t gone away.  When the broader public and the world at large dismisses a “progressive” idea, that idea is almost certain to find an enthusiastic welcome on university campuses.  The notions of “climate reparations” and more broadly “climate justice” have settled in as things that campus philosophers philosophize about and campus activists activize over.

Possibly this is something that busy people should ignore. “Climate reparations” may turn out to be like the campaign to establish Esperanto as a world language. Esperanto, invented in the 1870s, was put forward as a tool for ending ethnic conflict and fostering world peace.  It enjoyed an American vogue in the 1960s, perhaps best remembered for a 1966 horror movie, Incubus, starring William Shatner, in which the entire dialogue was spoken in Esperanto.

Those who speak to Americans right now of climate reparations might as well be lecturing in Esperanto, since few of us want this economic incubus.  But it is never wise to entirely ignore the ideas gestating in the faculty towers.  Sometimes they get translated into actual political movements.

From Race to Environment

This thought came to mind when I came across an essay by a writer for the New America Foundation.  In “The Cost of Ignoring America’s Past,” Hana Passen begins by setting forth an astonishing parallel:

“If we do not face the lasting impact of slavery, which has been abolished by law and condemned in the court of morality, how will we be able to legislate issues like climate change, which some still deny?”

Passen, it turns out, hadn’t conjured the moral equivalence of slavery and climate change out of thin air.  She was paraphrasing Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, who sets it out even more starkly:

“What [slavery] reparations requires is a country and a citizenry that can look at itself in the mirror naked and see itself clearly,” Coates said during a recent conversation with New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter. “And that’s the same argument for climate change. What is required for reparations, that kind of citizenry, that kind of patriotism, is not just required on that front.”

Coates’ article in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” was a huge hit for the rather stodgy journal.  According to its editor James Bennett, Coates’ article “brought more visitors to the Atlantic [website] in a single day than any single piece we’ve ever published.”  It also sold out on newsstands.  But in his article Coates stuck entirely to the theme of racial reparations and did not raise the green flag of climate reparations he brought up his New America interview.

Reparations for slavery is an idea that has been churning among African-Americans for a very long time, and one that grows less and less plausible as a practical political matter with every year that passes since theEmancipation Proclamation (1863) and the passages of the 13th and 14thAmendments (1865, 1868).  But slavery reparations, or reparations for racial injustice more broadly conceived, are a durable fantasy, and it isn’t wholly surprising that a fresh enunciation of the case for them has excited attention.

But that’s a topic for another day.  The relevance of racial reparations to “climate justice” is that it serves as a conceptual and moral model.  Somebody has done something bad to someone.  Somebody has to pay.

Cotton Mather’s View

Mr. Coates is an editor, not an academic.  But the academic world is astir with ideas about how to apportion responsibility for climate change.  In this realm, any debate whether global warming is occurring and to what degree it can be attributed to human actions is entirely foreclosed.  It is simply assumed or asserted that catastrophic man-made climate change is upon us, and the discussion moves directly to identifying the culprits and apportioning the costs.  In this vein, the discussion bears a certain resemblance to debate in 17th century New England on how to handle the danger posed by witches.  It is as provocative today to express doubt in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as it would have been to argue with Cotton Mather about relying on spectral evidence.  As Mather said, “Never use but one grain of patience with any man that shall go to impose upon me a Denial of Devils, or of Witches.” In what follows, I will abide by Mather’s counsel.

What do academics argue about when it comes to climate reparations?  Simon Carey, a professor of political theory at the University of Birmingham, lays out some useful distinctions in “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change.”  There is wide agreement on the “polluter pays principle” (PPP), Carey says.  But there is disagreement whether the true polluter is the individual who pollutes or the nation that benefits from his actions.  “Many of those who adopt the PPP approach to climate change appear to treat countries as the relevant units.”  Carey, who might be described as a climate liberal, rejects this collectivist approach, which he said is founded on the “beneficiary pays principle” (BPP). Current generations have benefited from the pollution caused by their ancestors, so the current generation should be held collectively responsible.  The Copenhagen proposal—which came four years after Carey’s article—embodies BPP logic.

Carey himself, however, believes that BPP violates PPP.  The original polluter often doesn’t pay at all, because he is dead, and the payments ignore all the improvements to the standard of living that flow from past industrialization. Carey isn’t against making people pay; he just wants individuals to pay for the harm they themselves do.  Presumably he would endorse making BP (the oil company) pay for the damage caused by the 2010 blowout of its well in the Gulf of Mexico.

This summary is probably enough to suggest that the debate over climate reparations is a serious matter drawing serious attention from scholars.  I won’t take the space here for a deep dive into climate reparations scholarship, but a little snorkeling around the reef is enlightening.

Backward-Looking Laws

In 2008, Daniel Farber published “Basic Compensation for Victims of Climate Change” in Environmental Law and Policy Annual Review.  Farber attempted to identify the injuries that deserve compensation and the “responsible parties.”  He also gave voice to the racial reparations analogy:

“The problem is somewhat analogous to the diffuse issues raised by those seeking reparations for slavery and past racial discrimination.”

Farber is a professor of law at UC Berkeley where he holds a named chair and co-directs the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.  He is a consequential and well-published figure.  His works include, not incidentally, a law review article, “Backward-Looking Laws and Equal Protection:  The Case of Black Reparations” (2006).  His books includeDisaster Law; Disaster Law and Policy; and Eco-pragmatism:  Making Sensible Environmental Decisions in an Uncertain World.  His article on black reparations is essentially a meditation on Justice Stevens’ approach to reparations, who he says, “clearly prefers forward-looking rationales for affirmative action over remedial ones” and “might vote against reparations on that basis.”

Farber’s article on compensation for victims of climate change elicited a number of responses, most interestingly from Kenneth Feinberg, the man who served as Special Master to the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and who also ran the $20 billion BP oil spill victims’ fund.  Feinberg disagreed with Farber’s approach that distributes financial responsibility among culprits by a “market share” contribution formula.  Feinberg thinks it “more reasonable—and more politically feasible—to expect governments themselves to fund any compensation regimen.”  Feinberg also thinks it is premature to start cutting the checks.  “There is a great deal to be said for waiting until climate change litigation develops and matures…”

Why Wait?

There are many in the sustainability movement, however, who aren’t inclined to wait at all.  They act quickly, as we saw recently when an adjunct professor at American University ventured a criticism on the op-ed page ofThe Wall Street Journal of the climate reparations movement.  Professor Caleb Rossiter noted that:

“More than 230 organizations, including Africa Action and Oxfam, want industrialized countries to pay ‘reparations’ to African governments for droughts, rising sea levels and other alleged results of what Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni calls ‘climate aggression.’”

Rossiter argued that the campaign extended to efforts “to deny to Africans the reliable electricity—and thus the economic development and extended years of life—that fossil fuels can bring.”  The reward to Rossiter for his airing this complaint was a prompt firing from his position as a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.  (Cotton Mather would approve.)

As part of the National Association of Scholars’ study of the sustainability movement, I have begun to track the “reparations” thread within the universities.  It has several aliases, including “environmental justice,” “climate compensation,” “climate change liability,” “climate debt,” and “climate reparations.”  The last in the list is the term preferred by Maxine Burkett, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, who argues that reparations put the “moral issues” appropriately at the center of the debate and offer the possibility of “galvanizing greater enthusiasm and commitment to repair from individuals, communities and nation-states.”  She thinks reparations would “foster civic trust between nations and manifest social solidarity.”

Judging from the Copenhagen and Warsaw conferences, that dream of international amity is far-fetched.  We might have a better chance by sitting ourselves down to learn Esperanto.

But lest this seem too airy a dismissal of a movement that combines heartfelt sympathy for a world imagined to be warming to disaster with cold determination to plunder the West by litigation and treaty, let me add that I take the reparations movement as a force to be reckoned with.  Hundreds of professors are honing it at law schools, environmental institutes, and schools of public policy.  Who pays?  As we say in Esperanto, Finfine, vi kaj mi. [Eventually, you and me.]

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