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Q&A: What do rich countries owe the rest of the world?

‘I’m calling for unconditional transfers of cash and capital and for debt cancellation.’

An activist holds a sign that reads 'act now, end greenwashing' Willy Kurniawan/REUTERS
An activist demanding climate justice and protesting against Indonesian President Joko Widodo's COP26 statement, at a rally in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, on 5 November 2021.

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One of the thorniest issues at the most recent climate talks in Glasgow was the question of what rich nations, who bear the most responsibility for climate change, owe to poorer ones, who are suffering the worst of its consequences.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., links the debt rich countries owe poor ones to what the descendants of enslaved people are owed in the United States – and says the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and carbon emissions are inextricably connected. 

Read more → Why COP26 leaves humanitarians wanting more

In his new book, Reconsidering Reparations, he calls for a “massive increase” in global climate funding, with no strings attached. “Those funds should come through unconditional cash transfers as opposed to loans or loan assistance,” Táíwò says. “The countries and corporations that have inherited the moral liabilities, stemming from the history of trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, should do their fair share and take on more of the burdens.”

In a recent interview with Danielle Renwick of Nexus Media News, he spoke about reparations in the context of the climate crisis, the shortcomings of the Green Climate Fund, and finding solace in philosophy.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Renwick: You have written that, in order to adapt to climate change, the international community has two ways forward: climate reparations or climate colonialism. What’s the difference between the two?

Táíwò: Climate impacts and our responses to the climate crisis – what we do or don't invest in, what kinds of solutions or projects we pursue to decarbonise and adapt to the climate crisis – all of those things redistribute power. 

So we can redistribute power in ways that exacerbate historical inequalities or we can respond to those challenges in ways that ameliorate the historical injustices that we've inherited. The possibility of ameliorating or eliminating those historical injustices is climate reparations. But the status quo has, unfortunately, been to exacerbate, or at least perpetuate, historical injustices.

I think of reparations in the context of the climate crisis as a constructive project to build a just world and a redistributive project to allocate the burdens and benefits of that constructive project in a way that's sensitive to historical injustice [for slavery and colonialism].

Renwick: What does that redistributive project look like?

Táíwò: I’m proposing a massive increase in global climate funding. 

The countries and corporations that have inherited the moral liabilities, stemming from the history of trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, should do their fair share and take on more of the burdens. The Global North, rich countries, should be the first to decarbonise. They should decarbonise the fastest and they should be the people to fund adaptation in the Global South. They should also be first in line to respond to loss and damage and to relocate people who have been displaced by climate-related disasters.

Renwick: What about projects like the Green Climate Fund, to which countries have pledged over $10 billion to help developing countries reach their climate goals?

Táíwò: In the book, I talk about the Green Climate Fund, and [argue that] those funds should come through unconditional cash transfers as opposed to loans or loan assistance.The Green Climate Fund, as it stands, is an idea. And it's an idea that is several orders of magnitude smaller than the scale of the problem, which is in the trillions.

Also, the Green Climate Fund, as currently instituted, provides a range of financing [models] that include loans, loan guarantees, and in-kind donations. It includes the kinds of things that can generate debt, basically. And that's not what I'm advocating [for]. I’m calling for unconditional transfers of cash and capital and for debt cancellation.

Renwick: Do you think there’s an appetite for climate reparations among rich countries? 

Táíwò: I think it's going to take sustained pressure from the national governments of the Global South. 

Renwick: What leverage do those governments have?

Táíwò: One is a moral-political sort of leverage. As loath as I am to take rich countries at their word when they claim to be bastions of freedom and morality, they do have some level of investment in their reputations.

I would add to that the geopolitical leverage that emerges from state competition between, say, the United States, China, and Russia in terms of sway over leadership and access to markets and strategic resources in G77 countries. 

Renwick: Is climate justice compatible with capitalism?

Táíwò: I don’t think so. I think the kinds of historical inequities that we're trying to resolve with reparations are built into how capitalism functions. 

Renwick: So where does that leave us?

Táíwò: We should be working toward a world that is not capitalist, I think, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing we can do between here and there.

Every institution that divests from fossil fuels and invests into community resilience [represents] measurable progress toward justice. Every municipality that takes its utilities out of shareholder hands and puts them into public hands, under meaningful community control, is a step toward justice. Every dollar removed from tax havens and [put] into the control of Black and Indigenous people, particularly the most vulnerable among them, is a step towards justice. 

We should avoid the all-or-nothing thinking that either we're in utopia or we're doomed.

Renwick: How do carbon markets and cap and trade – decidedly market-oriented solutions – fit in with your vision?

Táíwò: I wouldn't categorically rule out any of those things. But the idea that we're one Pigouvian tax away from restoring sense to our energy system and to our global politics is, I think, fanciful thinking.

The climate crisis itself is the ultimate denunciation of [the idea] that the market is, without exception, where solutions and efficiency can be found. It’s the end result of generations of letting the market dictate our human relationship to the land, the water, the sky and the energy that we use to meet our needs.

Renwick: You’ve written about growing up in a Nigerian-American family in Ohio. How does your family history inform your research? 

Táíwò: Like everybody, my personal background has shaped the way that I view the world. My parents were born as colonial subjects of the British Empire, and in their lifetime, Nigeria became an independent country. So that, in and of itself, has given me a sense of political possibility and helps me avoid nihilism or fatalism that are possible, [given] the scale of the climate crisis.

“Opposition to injustice, in and of itself, doesn't provide the kinds of answers that sometimes we wish it did.”

But it's also made me sceptical that we can make progress just by opposing the right people. There were more problems in Nigerian politics than just whether the British were around. There were deep-seated, regional, ethnic, and religious social dynamics that had to be worked through [after independence] and have to be worked through now. Opposition to injustice, in and of itself, doesn't provide the kinds of answers that sometimes we wish it did. 

Renwick: How does that play out in climate politics?

Táíwò: I've often been frustrated by what I see as an excessive orientation around one particular villain, [be it] private fossil fuel companies or a particular nation-state.

[There’s this notion that] maybe if we just oppose colonialism or the particular settler country of the United States, or if we oppose CEOs, then we'll have all the answers to move forward to a just future.

I just don't think that's true. We've emitted way too much carbon. We've built systems of food, energy, and water distribution that are tied to dirty, polluting technologies. [This] presents not just ideological [and political] problems, but real, difficult, practical problems of how we're going to do all those things in a decarbonised way – and in a way that's compatible with our commitments to justice; in a way that doesn't sacrifice Indigenous communities who live around resources that are critical for green technologies or people who live in deep energy poverty. 

Renwick: Has studying philosophy given you coping skills for the existential threat of climate change?

Táíwò: I think philosophy has given me tools on an emotional level. I've written a little bit about stoic thought, and [I like] its attention to the responsibility we have to accept our circumstances. That doesn't mean refusing to try to change our circumstances, but finding something to strive for, even when we can't immediately change things.

So I think it's more a question of refocus. Rather than being beaten down by the things we can't do, we can attach ourselves to the things that we can do. If we cultivate the patience to do that, we might find that the things we can do are more important. That's been really emotionally helpful for me in the past few years.

I also find solace in the ancestral view. Thinking of myself as an ancestor allows me a perspective on what I can do that doesn't tie me so strongly to the specific things that I as an atomised individual see or experience. It's still meaningful if I do something that bears fruit in my children's lifetime or in their children's lifetime. 

This story was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

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