Oxfam Hong Kong
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.
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.
All over the world, there are tales like Quispe’s. 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 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.
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.
“You broke it, you buy it,” says Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who has emerged as one of the main spokespeople for the climate debt movement. Behind that snappy sound bite, however, lurk messy details. The first challenge is figuring out how much is actually owed, and to whom, and also by whom. The Bolivian government, for example, calculates that in 2009 its climate change-related costs represented at least 7 percent of its national budget. The UN’s 2009 World Economic and Social Survey says that funding for adaptation and mitigation ought to start now and be around 1 percent of total World Gross Product, about $500 billion a year.
But this isn’t an exact science. “There is a tendency these days to blame everything on climate change,” says Dirk Hoffman, director of the climate change program at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Bolivia’s largest university. He says that now every hard rain or day without becomes the fault of the industrialized world. “Bolivia has always been a land of extremes. There has always been drought and there has always been flooding.” What’s changed, he says, is the frequency and intensity of these natural occurrences. “We used to see these problems [of severe drought and flooding] every seven or nine years, and now we see them every year or every other year. And that is because of global warming and environmental changes caused by human activity.”
Even once reparation amounts are established, there are the questions of who pays, and how. Right now, the idea is that the money will come from industrialized nations. But it’s unclear whether each country would contribute based on its relative wealth – or its emissions rates. Some people have suggested that multinational corporations should make payments, as they have benefitted from unchecked carbon emissions for years. But how to make them pay?
On the receiving end, it’s assumed that reparations would be pooled in national pots administered by governments. But the governments of many poor nations are less-than-transparent, fueling concerns that funds would not end up being used for their intended purpose.
The second demand of climate debt campaigners is that industrialized nations take steps to reduce their emissions. Jubilee South, a major voice in the climate debt movement, says that wealthy nations must reduce emissions by at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, as opposed to the nonbinding emissions pledges established by the Copenhagen Accord. This reduction or greater, they say, could help in the effort to limit temperature increases to 1 degree Celsius, which would offer hope to island nations, as well as communities that depend on glacial melt.
The importance of this second pillar, activists say, cannot be underestimated. Right now, however, there is little hope that developed nations will meet such an ambitious objective since the emissions reduction goals set out in Copenhagen would allow for temperature increases of up to three or four degrees Celsius.
Within the discussion of greenhouse gas reductions there are also criticisms of the status quo. “We cannot continue a system that allows climate criminals to be paid,” says Nnimmo Bassey, Nigeria-born president of Friends of the Earth International, referring to the emissions trading market, which allows polluters to buy the rights to continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The third pillar of the climate debt argument is mitigation – assisting poorer nations to put in place renewable energy infrastructure, for example. Mitigation proposals would ensure that areas with little to no electricity or fuel would be able to put in solar panels or windmills to provide power rather than setting up gas- or oil-dependent systems. On the whole, renewable energy technology and expertise is more advanced in the industrialized world. So, say climate debt advocates, the North should share this knowledge to help the South develop sustainably.
The idea could expand to include large-scale clean energy projects that help more than individual communities move toward a greener future. “Right now the biggest barriers to Bolivia developing its lithium are lack of infrastructure and the need for technology transfer,” says Naomi Klein, author of international bestsellers No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. “But why should Bolivia shoulder these burdens alone? The industrialized world, which created the climate crisis and has a vested interest in Bolivia’s green development, should share the cost burden as a form of climate debt repayment. It’s mitigation, but on a mass level.”
Lithium is the world’s lightest metal and given its energy storage capacity, virtually every hybrid and electric car on the planet uses a lithium-ion battery. The majority of the world’s reserves are underneath Bolivia’s vast salt flats. The industry is just beginning to develop, so far financed entirely by the government. At some point it will need help. “We know that we will need outside assistance,” says José Pimental, Bolivia’s mining minister. “And so our doors are wide open to offers and proposals.”
For the native Aymara people, the snow-capped peaks that ring the 12,000 foot high city of La Paz are not just mountains – they are achachilas, or mountain gods, who provide protection, symbolize honor, and give strength to the Indigenous who have always lived under their gaze. Now, as the great white masses melt down to bare rock, the Aymara speak of impending crisis.
“Our achachilas are disappearing,” Quispe told me, “and that can’t mean anything good for pachamama [mother earth].” Or for his fellow highland residents. In addition to their cultural and religious significance, these glaciers provide a crucial 20 percent of the drinking water for almost one quarter of Bolivia’s nine million residents.
The grave situation is an example, Klein says, of the environmental movement turning from “green to red.” She explains: “We have moved on from the ‘kumbaya’ stage of environmentalism, in which we believed that climate change transcended identity issues, to a phase in which we recognize that climate change is only going to exacerbate inequality.”
Although some of Bolivia’s other climate alterations may have debatable causes, scientists say that the cause of glacier melt is 95 percent global warming. “We need to have started working on solutions yesterday,” says Edson Ramirez, Bolivia’s top glaciologist, who has been studying the mountains since the early 1990s. Ramirez explains that one key solution is the construction of reservoirs, but that they take between five and ten years to build and are expensive.
But where there are losers, there are also winners. Some groups, even some nations, may benefit from the dislocations of climate change. Corporations that patent genetically modified seeds engineered to better withstand new climate conditions might see additional profits, for example. So might financial firms poised to broker the buying and selling of emissions credits. In the short term, at least, Canada and Russia might gain from better growing conditions and increased trade via an ice-free Arctic Ocean shipping route.
Further complicating the issue is that within the Global North there are groups or regions that will suffer as well. One example is the Alaska Natives, whose ecosystems are threatened by rising temperatures. Until now, climate debt demands have focused on drawing geopolitical lines between North and South, avoiding such complexities. But advocates acknowledge that recognizing, and addressing, those inequities will be key to any climate reparations system.
Establishing the distinctions between those who have helped to cause or will benefit from climate change, and those who suffer its consequences is crucial to the reparations argument, advocates say, because only then does the theoretical basis of reparations make sense. It’s about what’s owed, not gifted.
“This is not about begging,” Angelica Navarro, Bolivia’s main climate change negotiator, repeats often. “This is about an obligation of those who are responsible for creating the problem to those who are going to suffer the consequences.”
For its part, the United States – the nation with the greatest historical emissions – is opposed to the idea of climate reparations. While President Obama has acknowledged that the United States must play a role in helping developing nations to cope with climate change, he has skirted the idea that it’s about righting historical wrongs. In Copenhagen, Todd Stern, the top US negotiator, testily said: “I actually completely reject the notion of debt or anything like that.”
Perhaps most infuriating to Bolivia and its allies is what they call the United States’ blackmailing when it comes to climate politics. In April, the United States announced that those nations unwilling to sign the Copenhagen Accord would have their climate aid revoked. So far, Bolivia has lost $3 million.
For many developing nations, the climate debt demand offers a way to address their climate change woes. Yet an irony shadows their claims: Some of the nations calling for climate reparations have economies based on extractive industries. In fact, the South is providing much of the fossil fuel the North uses to emit greenhouse gases.
The seeming paradox of critiquing industrialized nations for their carbon record while doing little to change their own policies caused great tension at the Bolivia summit. And that tension had a name: Mesa 18.
A few weeks before the summit, a coalition of Indigenous and social movement groups and NGOs requested that one more working group be added to the established 17: a roundtable on “social-environmental conflict” – in other words, a forum in which to discuss the fact that while Bolivia is leading the movement to demand the greening of industrialized nations, its own backyard is filled with oilrigs and pipelines.
“We recognize that climate change is only going to exacerbate inequality.”
The Bolivian government responded with a less-than-polite “no.” In the days leading up to the event, the government even tried denying that an 18th proposal had ever been put forward.
Mesa 18 gathered anyway, off the official summit grounds and off the official summit record. “I fully believe in the message put forth by our president this morning,” Rafael Quispe, leader of the indigenous rights group CONAMAQ, said as he inaugurated Mesa 18, just hours after Morales affirmed his relentless fight on behalf of Mother Earth. The rebel group’s makeshift forum, a tin-roof barn, was packed with hundreds of people. “But we have serious problems in our own country with extractive industry and we can not ignore the effects this has on brothers and sisters around the nation,” Quispe explained.
Indeed, Bolivia’s extractive industry is expansive. From the second largest natural gas reserves in South America to large deposits of silver, oil, tin, zinc, and copper, almost 13 percent of the economy rests on environmentally destructive industries. And it’s expanding. “Our very own YPFB [Bolivian state hydrocarbon company], supported by the transnationals, is coming into our communities without any real consult with the Indigenous peoples on the land to carry out oil exploration activities,” Justin Zambrana, president of the Guaraní Association’s Leader Council told the Bolivian press recently.
Just days after the conference, Bolivia’s Finance Minister, Luis Arce, gave a presentation in Washington, DC where he called natural resources the key to funding “a new Bolivia,” and said the government planned to expand extraction to fund social programs.
Few deny that development for South America’s poorest nation is necessary. Mesa 18 tried to bring the issues to the table in part, according to one organizer, because it is not a Bolivia-specific issue. Many other developing nations – Nigeria, Venezuela, Indonesia – rely on extractive industries, and few have established mechanisms for weaning themselves off of it.
Though seemingly disparate from the argument on climate debt, the Mesa 18 controversy is actually the flip side of the same debate: Who holds responsibility and what needs to change? By demanding discussion about the Global South’s own reliance on environmentally damaging industries, participants made a statement that they are not willing to simply cast blame northwards, or to wait for the industrialized world to provide solutions.
“The minerals and hydrocarbons that are taken out of our soil in our communities is the same raw material that creates disequilibrium in our planet,” CONAMAQ’s Quispe said after the conference. “And so when our President Evo Morales says ‘Mother Earth or death,’ then we must talk with urgency about creating a new model of managing our natural resources.”
In other words: To demand responsibility also involves claiming some.
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a Bolivia-based freelance reporter who has worked for TIME, The Economist, and ABC News.
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