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Todd Stern, why don’t you acknowledge the ecological debt?

By Joan Martinez-Alier.

In one of the last days of the COP21 in Paris in December 2015, where the pressure in the streets from the environmental justice movement was lacking, the special ambassador from the United States, Todd Stern, reiterated again that “there’s one thing that we don’t accept and won’t accept in this agreement and that is the notion that there should be liability and compensation for loss and damage. That’s a line that we can’t cross. And I think in that regard we are in the exact same place, my guess is, with virtually all, if not all, developed countries.”

He had already said this in Copenhagen in 2009, leading to a famous exchange with Pablo Solón, the ambassador of Bolivia at the time, and now one more member of the downcast civil society groups outside the official meeting. At the time, as also in Cancun in 2011, Pablo Solón said that the glaciers of the Andes were dwindling, water would become scarce – which countries were responsible for this? Obviously it was not Bolivia. It was not either the Pacific Islands or Bangladesh threatened by sea level rise. Those responsible were the countries with disproportionate historical and present per capita emissions. The notion of common but differentiated responsibility had been included in the Climate Change Treaty of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Todd Stern should acknowledge not only responsibility but also liability. “As they say in the US, if you break it, you buy it.”

The notion of a climate debt (as part of a wider ecological debt) from North to South has been alive since 1991. It has produced a scholarly literature using physical indicators and even assessing its economic amount, either by estimating future damages or by counting the economic savings made by not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to the extent necessary to avoid climate change. 1 Environmental movements of the South have insisted on the existence of an ecological debt, recently supported by the encyclical Laudato si (paragraphs 51, 52). The main point is not so much the calculation and payment of the ecological debt but the demand that liability should be acknowledged and , particularly, that the debt should increase no further. The Paris agreement of 2015 foresees increases in the amount of emissions with a peak possibly in 2030, and then a very slow decline towards emissions per year which would be half of those today. Even after emissions peak, something now in sight, the quantity of present emissions and of historically accumulated emissions mean that climate change will continue. Promises of a 2º degree or even a 1.5º degree limit are not credible, largely because of uncertainty.

The expression “loss and damage” was introducing in Warsaw at one of the COPs between Cancun and Paris, on the insistence of governments of the South, and it is equivalent to “climate debt”, i.e. counting the damages that climate change will produce in countries which have contributed little to it. In fact, if the world had the per capita emissions of Africa south of the Sahara or even India, there would be no enhanced greenhouse effect, emissions would be within the absorption capacity of the atmosphere (without increasing concentration of carbon dioxide) and the oceans.

When the greenhouse effect was discovered and quantified in 1896 by Arrhenius2 he used a figure of 300 ppm (parts of carbon dioxide per million), in 1992 when the Climate Change Treaty in Rio was signed the concentration was 360 ppm and in 2015 it is over 400 ppm, and it will keep increasing so long as there is not a substantial decrease in emissions. Who was mainly responsible for the increase in a little over one hundred years from 300 ppm to 400 ppm? One cannot claim lack of knowledge of the phenomenon although it took a long time to get a political response.3

In the United States as Todd Stern knows perfectly well, there are provisions for “strict” liability (where alleged lack of knowledge of effects, and lack of intention to do damage do not eliminate liability) in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 otherwise known as CERCLA or Superfund, according to which companies must repair and compensate for damages done.

In Paris in 2015, Todd Stern speaking for the developed countries, i.e. those mainly responsible for the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, denied compensation and liability, in this way making a genuine agreement more difficult. Payments for “loss and damage” were to be seen, according to him, not as compensation but as generous aid from rich to poor for coping with the effects of climate change when “adaptation” was not enough. In fact money has been promised to poor countries (since Copenhagen 2001 to Paris 2015) if they give up their claims of a climate debt. Money is used for bribery.

It is a pity that Pope Francis has not appeared in Paris to read to the assembled ministers and heads of state from paragraph 51 of his own encyclical, Laudato si, which in the vigorous language current in the environmental justice movement in Latin America since 1991, says: A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital.

Notice that Pope Francis’ encyclical demands that there be a calculation of the “environmental space” disproportionately occupied by the rich to deposit greenhouse gases. There is no doubt that the encyclical applies a notion of “strict” liability to the greenhouse effect, similar to that of the CERCLA internally to the United States. In paragraph 52, the encyclical remarks on a political asymmetry: while the external financial debt has been used by the creditors as an instrument of political power, the ecological debt (from North to South) is not used as a political instrument. The creditors of the ecological debt are politically not strong enough.

In conclusion, one is reminded of K. W. Kapp´s observation, that the capitalist industrial system is a system of unacknowledged and unpaid cost-shifting to poor people today, to future generations and to other species. Todd Stern is an outspoken representative of this system.

1 A recent summary is R. Warlenius, G. Pierce, V. Ramasar, 2015, Reversing the arrow of arrears: The concept of “ecological debt” and its value for environmental justice, Global Environmental Change, 30: 21-30.

2 Svante Arrhenius, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground,

Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Series 5, Volume 41, April 1896, p. 237-276, where earlier related work by Tyndall and other autors was quoted. Arrhenius made clear in his textbook Lehrbuch der Kosmischen Physik of 1903 that burning coal would increase the temperature of the earth, and he estimated the effect of doubling or tripling the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

3 The IPCC met in Villach in Austria in 1986 for the first time because there was already so much information on the enhanced greenhouse effect. See for instance Jacques Grinevald, L’Effet de serre de la Biosphère. De la révolution thermo-industrielle à l’écologie globale , Stratégies énergétiques, biosphère & société, no 1, Genève, 1990, p. 9-34 (

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