Artillery Row

Why we should resist academic calls for climate reparations

Simply blaming the West is easy but wrong

The liberal-lefty academics have been at it again. No, not decolonising mathematical equations this time, nor setting up hotlines for reporting microaggressions, nor repatriating artefacts to the descendants of Nigerian slave traders. No, this time they’re after your money.

Specifically, they want you in “wealthy nations” to “urgently scale up” the already pledged “$100 billion of climate finance a year” to Africa and other “frontline nations” to help ensure they are “compensated for impacts from a crisis they did not cause”. Make no mistake, this is reparations. This isn’t just about support for “mitigation and adaptation” efforts. This is about creating “a financing facility for loss and damage” for “addressing past, present and future impacts”

These are the views of health journal editors in a joint piece simultaneously published in November across a whopping 264 academic titles, including the BMJ and Lancet. Cross-publishing highly politicised editorials like this is uncommon and serves two purposes: to present a purportedly unanimous view of the academic community and to quell any dissent in the ranks. “But what if I have a different opinion on it? Nope, the top editors have spoken. This brute force approach ensures that only one line is heard, with unrivalled prominence and publicity.

The Industrial Revolution has lifted millions out of poverty

The editorial goes on, in explaining how “highly unjust” it is that “the most impacted nations have contributed the least to global cumulative emissions”. Figures are provided: a one fifth GDP impact for only a three per cent CO2 contribution. The former is referenced from analysis by the V20 group, which is “a dedicated cooperation initiative of economies systemically vulnerable to climate change”. No conflict of interest there, then. The latter, following the citation chain, is based on estimates which caveat African nations as having “the highest emission errors”. It is hardly surprising that collecting publication-grade emissions data has not been among the highest priorities for Africans over the last couple of centuries. But let’s not get bogged down with the particulars.

The problem with this overly reductionist argument is that, whilst quick to cite the drawbacks of industrialisation, it fails to take into account the benefits. The Industrial Revolution has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty worldwide. Although lagging others, Africa’s economy has still grown considerably in the post-industrial period. Whilst Africa itself may not contribute significantly to global emissions, it has benefitted immeasurably from the industrial products whose progressive innovation inevitably has. Think farming machinery, motorised transport, aeroplanes. These carbon-producing instruments of trade and travel have helped build the dynamic Africa we see today. If the West must pay for the negatives of industrialisation, then should it not also be rewarded for the benefits?

It is funny how international culpability is selectively assigned and how inconsistently different countries should be “compensated for impacts from a crisis they did not cause”. Should Guinea not compensate its neighbours for failing to stem the Ebola outbreak? Should China not pay the world for COVID? Perhaps even Iceland should cough up for the volcanic ash cloud of 2010? Going down this path would raise impossible questions over who would be the ultimate arbiter and what would be their criteria for adjudicating complex multilateral financial settlements. Not to mention the practicalities of enforcing payment.

GDP per capita in 1990 International Dollars (data from Contours of the World Economy, 1 — 2008 AD by Angus Maddison)


Yet practical thinking is seemingly beyond the right-on academics. Thinking practically, one would probably accept that demanding large financial sacrifices — which, by the way, is now insisted “should come through grants not loans” — from countries on the brink of recession is, at the very least, not the best timing. With increasing numbers reliant on food banks and suffering from an extraordinary cost of living, these “urgent” demands highlight the gulf that exists between the everyday needs of the general public and the woke priorities of the intellectual elite. Why should they be allowed to offload their self-assembled privilege-guilt in saddling ordinary citizens with higher taxes and greater national debt for decades to come?

It is wrong to make people pay for decisions they did not take

In any case, there must be some consideration to the degree of responsibility attributable to those living several generations down the line from actors of the Industrial Revolution. Should people born today really be accountable for the decisions of those who have been dead and buried for over a century? This is surely against the principles of personal liberty and liability. Links from person to state are further strained through the increasing detachment of younger people to national identity: why should those feeling “global citizenship” pay for the past wrongs of a country they just happen to have been born in?

We should not ignore Africa, which remains the poorest continent in the world. We should help to maximise opportunities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, not least through promoting free and fair trade (long favoured by Brexit voters in exiting the protectionist EU). We should encourage wealthy neighbouring countries to do more, rather than leave the West to forever carry the world’s moral burden. We should, where possible, continue to support constructive efforts for climate change “mitigation and adaptation”, such as “early warning systems” where, as the editorial accepts, “progress has been made”.

Proposing reparations for “loss and damage” is wrong and will open the floodgates for innumerable future claims. It is wrong to make people pay for decisions they did not take, especially in current economic conditions. It is wrong to neglect the vast global benefits of industrialisation, and to selectively assign fault to the West. And it is wrong to ignore the innovative achievements of Western countries like the UK in transitioning to cleaner energy, and the lower resulting emissions when compared to the likes of India and China. Indeed, as much is acknowledged by a paper cited in the editorial: “The UK was responsible for only 1 per cent of global emissions in 2017. Reductions here will have a relatively small impact on emissions at the global level — or at least fall far short of the scale of change we need”.

Academics should recognise the groupthink encouraged by mass-publishing one-sided articles on the kind of complex and multifaceted issues that would traditionally have benefitted from critical reasoning and free debate. In signing off, the authors say of the West: “If so far they have failed to be persuaded by moral arguments, then hopefully their self-interest will now prevail”. It is deeply resentful comments such as these, with an inability to see any other than their own “moral arguments”, that strengthens the perception of academia as a narrow-minded self-serving monoculture, rather than the bastion of free speech it once was.

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

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

Critic magazine cover