America is finally joining the global movement of wealthy nations agreeing to pay poorer countries for the damage they’ve endured because of climate change.
To the dismay of many Republican legislators, last year the Biden administration agreed to participate in the United Nations’ fund for “loss and damage,” also known as climate reparations.
Although the United States and the European Union are taking some accountability for their part in causing an outsized amount of greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no guarantee wealthy nations will deposit into the fund. The U.N. is still in the preliminary stages of outlining the parameters of the fund, including determining how much responsible countries will be asked to pay.
Some climate activists say it’s still a good start.
Most of the United States’ climate-related spending over the past three decades has been focused on lowering greenhouse gas emissions at home, yet this move uniquely acknowledges the country’s role in exacerbating climate change abroad through domestic policies, including oil and gas production, industrial farming, and by having the world’s largest military footprint.
But how would this help tackle the climate injustices here in the U.S.? Short answer: It’s complex.
There has been a growing call for domestic climate reparations for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color for at least a decade. Climate justice activists are cautiously hopeful about America’s involvement in the U.N. fund. Recent severe weather events that have disproportionately affected marginalized communities may also open the door to revisit years-long conversations.
The term “climate reparations” was coined by Black energy and environmental expert Maxine Burkett in 2009. The concept, which has been included in versions of the Green New Deal — currently the country’s most progressive climate policy proposal — outlines ways the U.S. government could repay those communities for the harm they’ve experienced over the past four centuries driven by colonialism and anti-Black racism.
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According to a new report by the Brookings Institution titled “The Case for Climate Reparations in the United States,” calls for climate reparations are a direct response to the country’s history of slavery. “Enslavement brought vast wealth to the U.S. economy,” researchers wrote, which enabled “rapid industrial growth and resource extraction” and “transformed the U.S. into the world’s highest-emitting economy, cementing a highly uneven distribution of pollution in the process.”
What would climate reparations look like in the United States?
Climate reparations in the United States could take several forms, the least likely being direct cash payments. They’re more likely to look like mitigation efforts, says Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
This can be seen in the form of “managed retreat,” where the government buys homes from vulnerable populations in areas most susceptible to climate disasters, such as Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast. It can also occur through infrastructure improvements, such as upgraded water systems that will withstand storms, new levee systems, or the weatherization of homes by raising foundations, improving roofs, or switching to clean energy sources.
The financial support could be tailored to support Americans who’ve already been displaced by climate disasters, such as the hundreds of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi who then moved to Houston only to be displaced by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
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In many ways, climate reparations would be very similar to the spending plans outlined in the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, but with the benefits targeted at historically disadvantaged communities at a much higher rate. And just as these laws have been funded by taxes, so can climate reparations — which may not be that far-fetched, considering two-thirds of the country views climate change as a “major threat to the well-being of the United States.”
Some experts have also suggested creating a climate reparation fund to be paid into by industrial companies most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, such as ExxonMobil.
“With climate reparations, we’re talking about making communities whole,” said Rogers-Wright, who has helped push the climate reparations conversation forward in the U.S. “So whether it’s still Flint, Michigan, not having a water distribution system that people can have faith in, or the situation in Jackson [Mississippi]. We’re saying don’t send the EPA to continue to do monitoring and studies; send the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the problem.”
Who would benefit from climate reparations?
Unlike race-based reparations, climate reparations may benefit people across various racial and economic backgrounds, Rogers-Wright says. “It certainly includes our Indigenous siblings. And yes, it even does include poor white folk facing floods and pollution in Appalachia,” said Rogers-Wright. “It includes many of the folks, mainly white folk, like [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis and others, who’ve alienated the race-based reparations movement.”
By and large, however, climate reparations would most significantly improve the lives of Black Americans, who studies have shown are most likely to be impacted by flooding events due to severe weather and sea level rise and most likely to be affected by the air and water pollution that drives climate change.
In Louisiana, for example, climate reparations would help reverse centuries of anti-Black racism, where, following the abolishment of slavery, plantations were just replaced by the petrochemical industry. As Brooking Institution researchers wrote, “Today, the descendants of enslaved peoples there must contend with heavy toxicity and environmental pollution from that industry.”
Countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, who’ve been ravaged by climate impacts but have played little to no role in the factors driving climate change, will reap the most benefits from global climate reparations. Despite holding 15% of the world’s population, the African continent, for example, is responsible for less than 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, millions of African residents are displaced annually due to weather events made worse by climate change and a stark rise in emissions.
While climate reparations will not turn the tide of the storms, it will help fund essential mitigation efforts in these regions — including much-needed infrastructure advancements, such as levees and solar energy — so that people are better equipped to handle their impacts. Experts contend that the “loss and damage” price tag for poor nations will be between $290 billion and $580 billion annually by 2030.
As climate activist Tamara Toles O’Laughlin said in 2021, climate reparations ensure that the globe’s next moves are “paid for by the people that sponsored this catastrophe,” namely industrial companies and the governments that subsidize their operations. Climate reparations, she added, are a political framework that can “wrestle with what the past has brought us” and “begin the work to heal souls.”
Does this hinder the call for reparations for the descendants of slavery?
Black climate leaders have continued to support the calls for both direct reparations for Black Americans and reparations for the impacts of climate change, but Rogers-Wright contends that climate reparations may be more palpable for the average non-Black American because of their widespread results. This may be especially true for members of the mainstream climate and environmental movement who have been slow to acknowledge the issue of race within climate change.
Still, Rogers-Wright says, the push for climate reparations may indirectly detract from the larger calls for Black reparations. “We have to call them ‘climate reparations’ to emphasize that these resources will be given to people who we screwed over — and continue to screw over — intentionally,” said Rogers-Wright. “But then, it’s like a double-edged sword that may take momentum away from the overarching discussion of reparations for Black folks.”
Are climate reparations for U.S. residents likely anytime soon?
The short answer is no. As the calls for Black reparations at the federal, state, and local levels have continuously hit roadblocks, so have calls for climate reparations. At the federal level, Republicans have worked tirelessly over the past several months to reverse the country’s agreement to join the UN’s loss and damage fund.
Many legislators have instead called for mitigation efforts, like those outlined in proposals for climate reparations, but without any specific attention to race. “Climate change is real. Let’s find rational solutions to the problem that are win-win,” Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said in February, but “let’s clean out the planet in a way that gets buy-in from a lot of different people.”
But it’s evident, many climate activists explain, that because of centuries of industrial expansion and racist policies, the impacts from climate change are not equally felt and deserve quick attention.
“Our need for retrofitting the world against climate change is well overdue,” Rogers-Wright said. “I wish it would not be so controversial that some people need more and deserve more support than others.”