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Paying Our Climate Debts

The United States and other industrialized countries have to face up to historical responsibility.

When it comes to climate change, the burden of historical responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the developed West. There's no avoiding the fact that industrialized nations, which have grown economies, developed infrastructure, and generated great wealth by burning fossil fuels, have also affected countries throughout the developing world. The impacts of climate change aren't some future threat-they are happening now, damaging homes, food crops, and roads, putting a strain on public services, and even taking lives.

Adapting to the impacts of a changing climate is expensive, especially for the poorest, most vulnerable countries who did little to cause the problem. Bangladesh, for instance, is already earmarking a substantial portion of their relatively puny GDP, over one percent, for climate change adaptation. This despite the fact that Bangladesh's GDP will shrink because of climate change. These countries demand-and deserve-help. Despite some lovely rhetoric, rich nations haven't yet put any minds at ease.

With the COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen fast approaching, it's becoming all too clear that this issue could realistically derail the talks. "They want to deny historical responsibilities," warned the Filipino lead delegate Bernarditas Muller at a recent Oxfam event. If the United States and other Annex I countries don't show they're serious about ponying up cash commensurate to the damage done, there's a legitimate chance that the G77/China (a big block of developing countries) and AOSIS (the Alliance of Small Island States-without question the most immediately vulnerable to climate's threats) will simply walk out. Far from an empty threat, many of these countries feel that without adequate adaptation assistance, they will perish. Leaders in the dirt poor Maldives-where last week a Cabinet meeting was held underwater to call attention to their plight-are already looking for land to relocate.

It won't be cheap. Developing countries are now calling for 1.5 to 2 percent of developed nations' GDPs-at least $150 billion a year-to be designated for adaptation assistance alone. Our climate debt is even deeper, though, if you consider the amount of greenhouse gas that's already been emitted. With about 20 percent of the planet's population, developed countries have emitted about three quarters of the greenhouse gasses that are now settling into the atmosphere.

In a paper titled "Climate Debt: A Primer," the Third World Network wrote that "[d]eveloped countries representing a minority of people have appropriated the major part of a shared global resource for their own use-a resource that belongs to all and should be fairly shared with the majority of people." To avoid deepening our climate debt, the paper urges, "developed countries must seek to become carbon neutral and more. Reflecting their historical responsibility, their assigned amounts of atmospheric space in any future year should be even lower. They must take a lead in cutting emissions through deep domestic reductions, and by accepting assigned amounts that reflect the full extent of their historical emissions debt."

It is high time that industrialized nations, lead by the United States, recognize the fact that we've already caused a lot of damage-expensive damage-and that it's only going to get worse. It's our moral and diplomatic responsibility to help these poor, vulnerable countries deal with the mess we've made, and to leave enough of the atmosphere intact to avoid bringing about even worse fates.

Illustration by Will Etling

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