Picture credit: FIDA HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Allocating blame in the name of climate change

Dwelling on the question of historical responsibility for climate change helps no one

The conclusion of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai also spelled the end of the period when international climate policies could be thought to tackle common problems. Critics of the present agreement have said what they always have said — it is too little, too late. But in fact the opposite has happened as COP has overreached its mandate as part of creating a Fund for Loss and Damage predicated on the notion of Western historical guilt.

The Fund for Loss and Damage, the financing of which was agreed upon at the first day of COP28, has long been a priority of developing countries, the broader climate movement of NGOs, and its various allies within academia. When the fund was first adopted at COP27, it was under the premise that Western countries are obliged to pay “climate reparations”, i.e. a kind of compensation, because their historical emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to the damage caused by today’s climate change. The important question is less that of the size of the fund and more of why the money should be paid out in the first place — a point we will return to.

But first an example of what reparation reasoning looks like. In the summer of 2022, Pakistan’s authorities announced that a third of the country had been flooded. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change, claimed that the floods were caused by climate change, and therefore early industrialised countries like Great Britain must compensate for the damage caused by these floods.

One could object here that other low-lying countries — for example the Netherlands — have managed to avoid mass flooding. The counterargument would be that countries like Pakistan, which the British colonised, did not have the same opportunities as the Netherlands to adapt their territory to climate change. What we see here is the establishment of a new form of climate policies based on the notion of historical guilt, or debt.

The question of debt with respect to historical carbon dioxide emissions is not a new one. It has been around since the beginning of COP meetings. It was discussed, for example, in 1992 when the UN designed the first international framework for climate policy. And until recently, Western countries have been prepared to pay a greater share of global climate commitments, though the money for this has come in the form of loans, aid budgets and export-stimulating technology collaborations.

Spending money on counteracting climate damage may in itself be reasonable. Island nations, such as Fiji, the Maldives, and Tuvalu, risk disappearing altogether, and their peoples need to find homes in other countries. The Climate Damage Fund thus fills a void, as the ambition so far has been to reduce countries’ carbon emissions, rather than adaptation to climate change itself. There has so far been no support at all for managing damage caused by a changing climate.

But these newfound policies for climate realism – that is, adaptations to a changing climate – are flawed at their foundations. They are based on blame-allocation, whereby developing countries and large parts of the climate movement argue that historical carbon emissions must be tied closer to contemporary, overarching, questions of compensation by the West. 

We see here how the culture war currently embroiling Western societies, documented by historians such as Nigel Biggar, Jeff Fynn-Paul, and Niall Ferguson, has expanded into environmental policies — with demands that Western countries compensate the Global South for slavery, colonialism, racism and now also climate change. These historical injustices together constitute, according to a former climate negotiator for Pakistan, an interconnected system of oppression for which the West is ultimately responsible. A country like Great Britain should then begin by apologising for its role in the slave trade, and finally plead forgiveness for bringing about the industrial revolution.

That slave trade was historically significant both for Arab and European states seems less interesting in this context. And the fact that Britain began petitioning for the abolition of slavery as early as 1807 has no mitigating effect on the issue of guilt,—nor that slavery today is primarily to be found in non-Western countries, for example in the shape of interned Uighurs in the People’s Republic of China.

The reparation debates have in this regard not aimed to increase historical understanding as much as to establish symbolic frameworks, with clear poles of evil and goodness. The function of COP’s Loss and Damage Fund is not primarily to preserve the populations of smaller island nations, but to blame Western countries for all climate damage, in all countries, which according to an IPCC report will affect 3.6 billion people.

There are times in history when symbolic frameworks are possible and perhaps also desirable, such as at the Nuremberg Trials One of the outcomes from those trials was also that compensation is now paid out to affected Jewish families, as well as to the State of Israel. Relevant there is that Germany describes these compensations as a “compensation agreement” (Wiedergutmachungsabkommen) where the end goal is forgiveness, as Wiedergutmachung refer to “making the good again”. Israel instead uses the term Shilumim, which refers to a punitive taxation for debts that can never be repaid.

When we then talk about historical compensations, where the damage was caused before our lifetime, it becomes clear that the goal is not understanding or forgiveness but the establishment of frameworks of good and evil. The problem is that such frameworks do not resolve contemporary conflicts but lay the foundation for new ones.

Let us return here to the example of compensations for damage caused by climate change. After the summer of 2021, when several European countries suffered extensive flooding, a series of inquiries were made about the responsibility of local decision-makers for climate adaptation. The concern was less about how to phase out fossil fuels at the municipal level, and more about adapting to a changing global climate. This involves a range of actions: strengthening roads, bridges, and levees, building systems to divert water masses, and stocking supplies.

Among other things, these inquiries resulted in Roger Lewentz resigning from his post as German Minister of the Interior, seeing as he had failed to predict or anticipate the risk of these floods. Climate change can thus enable new norms about what constitutes good municipal and national decision-making. For a less dramatic but more ambitious adaptation to climate change, one could mention the regular addition of gravel along the British coastline as part of handling erosion and rising sea levels. This too is part of the new norm of governance that makes demands on taxpayer money as part of adapting to climate change.

By contrast, then, imagine instead a framework where damage caused by climate change is primarily attributed to other decision-makers, in other countries, or even in other historical times. That’s how Pakistani policymakers reasoned about the causes of last year’s floods. Instead of dealing with domestic political issues such as neglected infrastructure, corruption in the civil service and unwillingness to demand responsibility from decision-makers, fault was to be found elsewhere. And instead of a more ambitious climate policy, with reduced emissions and increased local adaptation, we get the UN’s fund for loss and damage.

Of course, it was never likely that Britain would cover the damages caused by the floods in Pakistan. Historically, the sums promised at COP meetings have rarely been paid out in full. The now agreed budget of $400 million for the Fund is also nowhere near the cost for loss and damage in developing countries, projected to reach $400 billion per year by 2030. 

… the issue of compensation … disconnects rulers of developing countries from their own governance of, and adaptation to, climate change

What makes the issue of compensation radical, and potentially explosive, is that it disconnects rulers of developing countries from their own governance of, and adaptation to, climate change. Cause and effect are placed in the past, whereby we in the present are reduced to recipients of its effects. It matters not how much compensation will eventually be paid out from the West. The reasons to absolve themselves from responsibility, by attributing blame to others, will remain. This is what the accusations from leaders of developing countries’, like Pakistan’s Minister Rehman, amounts to.

For example, China has pointed out that its support for the Loss and Damage Fund does not mean the country considers itself to have contributed to the historical emissions that are now causing climate damage. But China had extensive charcoal, coal and steel industries long before the Industrial Revolution. And just in the last decade, China has released more greenhouse gases than Great Britain did over the past 200 years. Should a climate framework, based on historical guilt, weigh these emissions differently depending on whether they occurred with or without knowledge of the emissions’ climate impact?

The compensation claims have not grown out of a vacuum, but coincide with an increasing legalisation of climate policy in general. That is, political goals are pursued through lawsuits instead of influencing public opinion. For example, climate activists have successfully sued the Dutch state for inadequate climate policies, winning a case in the Supreme Court in 2019. This in turn has inspired similar initiatives in other European countries, including in Sweden.

Paradoxically, the legalisation of climate issues goes hand in hand with an increasing tendency to resort to illegal climate actions. Examples range from occupying limestone quarries in Swedish industrial towns to blockades of motorways, in addition to a wave of attacks on cultural heritages and artworks in galleries around Europe. The clearest argument for the legitimacy of these actions have been formulated by Andreas Malm, a political theorist who believes that the time for a pacifist climate movement is now over. What is needed instead is a movement of sabotage that can help the broader climate movement in its demands for reductions in climate emissions.

Granted, there is history behind this line of reasoning. The American Civil Rights Movement’s demand for equal treatment and access to society’s institutions seemed more reasonable when there were groups on the fringes that made more radical claims, using more extreme methods.

But unlike the Civil Rights Movement, today’s climate movement is primarily an international, rather than national, project. Subsequently, its aims are to achieve global redistribution of resources, making supranational institutions like the UN increasingly technocratic in their climate policy, instead of offering a vision of what climate adaptation might mean for your own people, place and polity.

The climate movement does not build broad political alliances

The climate movement does not build broad political alliances because it has so far failed to understand or anticipate the emergence of new protest movements, for example the Yellow Vests in France, the Trucker Convoy in Canada — the Fuel Rebellion in Sweden and most recently the Farmer Protests in the Netherlands. These groups are protesting against economic crises, energy crises, and food crises — for example, Don’t Pay UK, which concerns the broader public. Subsequently, they have also helped bring about regime change in a number of countries, most recently in the Netherlands. Meanwhile and in contrast to this, the climate movement has opted for legal processes and sabotage that targets commuting workers with increased costs on gas or outright blockages of roads. Over time, the movement has thereby estranged and marginalised itself. And now, in its demands for compensation for historical injustices, it paves the way for future litigation in which the West is expected to bear the greatest blame.

Compensation claims, like the legalisation of climate change as a whole, cannot solve the fundamental condition that politics is ultimately a struggle between conflicting interests. With the reemergence of multipolarity in politics, it is increasingly evident that these annual COP meetings were a product of the post Cold War era, designed to make “sustainable development” into a new basis for international agreements, and where mitigating climate change was the main goal. But such political priorities always relied upon, and presumed, a unipolar world order. Now that it is gone, conflicts again take the form of naked violence, between and within states, rather than the form of international legal process where the outcome is some sort of indemnities.

Perhaps Western countries are expected to respect international agreements more than the rest of the world — after all, they are the ones who put the most resources into establishing supranational institutions, such as COP and the UN. But when even traditionally activistic countries like Sweden cut back on international commitments, and tune down both the rhetoric and resources for climate policy, we sense that we have reached the end of the road here.

The Fund for Loss and Damage will not serve to restore multilateral cooperation, as has been claimed at COP28. To build compensation claims on the basis of historical debt instead lays the groundwork for how conflicts can be justified in an era of climate change. 

The reasoning that risks becoming more ubiquitous in the years to come, as discourse on climate change seeks to combine legalism and moralism, is more akin to how early Christian theorists like St Augustine in the 4th and 5th century reasoned around what amounted to a just war (bellum iustum). While these ideas served to turn Christianity into a religion fit for imperial power, the concept of a just war is vulnerable to concept creep.

For a recent and instructive example of reasoning around what constitutes a just war, read some of the speech by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on why Ukraine should be invaded. The purpose is to legitimise aggression — turning an actor’s will to power and necessity into a virtue. Only this time such claims to your enemies’ resources will be made in the name of climate justice and play out on a global scale.

It may be possible to broker peace even in such a world order — countries with claims on each other’s territories, or who imagine historical or religious injustices, have after all managed to coexist before. But that balancing act has become significantly more difficult in the aftermath of COP28.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover