Climate Reparations
New York magazine|November 8 - 21, 2021
A trillion tons of carbon hang in the air, put there by the world’s rich— an existential threat to its poor. Can we remove it?
By David Wallace-Wells. Photograph by Cristina de Middle, Magnum photos

What Is Owed

THE MATH IS AS SIMPLE AS THE moral claim. We know how much carbon has been emitted and by which countries, which means we know who is most responsible and who will suffer most and that they are not the same. We know that the burden imposed on the world’s poorest by its richest is gruesome, that it is growing, and that it represents a climate apartheid demanding reparation—or should know it. We know we can remove some of that carbon from the atmosphere and undo at least some of the damage.

We know the cost of doing so using tools we have today. And we know that unless we use them, the problem will never go away.

Carbon dioxide is a gas, but it doesn’t dissipate immediately like viral aerosols in the wind. It accumulates, thickening the atmosphere for centuries, which means that all the carbon that has been added to the skies since the advent of industrialization is still heating the planet today and will be for ages to come, turning the Earth we have known into one we don’t.

Warming is often described as an ecological crisis. But there’s another way to conceive of climate change: as a moral catastrophe, engineered by the sheltered nations of the global North in the recent past and suffered by those, in the global South, least responsible for it and least prepared. The rich are rich today because of development powered by fossil fuels; the poorest today are those who have produced practically none of that pollution. But the atmosphere is as indifferent to the location of emissions as it is to motive; what matters is the tally of damage. Climate policy concerns itself primarily with future emissions trajectories: what can be done. But we have a climate crisis in all its urgency and brutality now because of legacy emissions: what has been done.

What has been done is this: Sixty percent of all historical emissions were produced in the lifetime of the average American, who is 38. Almost 90 percent were produced in the lifetime of our president. The Paris agreement of 2015 established a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That goal implies a carbon budget. We have already spent 89 percent of it.

Today, as hundreds of millions still lack electricity in the global South, 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions are being produced by the countries of the G20. Nearly half are produced by the world’s richest 10 percent. One recent study suggested that every four Americans could, in their lifetime, produce enough carbon to kill one person living elsewhere on the planet. Wealthier Americans produce much more carbon. A single transatlantic airline ticket yields one ton of CO2, more than the annual emissions of the average resident of subSaharan Africa. Wealth can enable decarbonization now; with clean energy cheaper than dirty energy for 90 percent of the world, renewables are finally enabling viable dreams of global green prosperity. But all of industrial history has been governed by a different pattern: Growth has meant emissions, and emissions have meant growth. The climate crisis is the result of that history, as is the wealth of nations.

Since 1850, when anthropogenic emissions essentially began, the U.S. has produced 509 gigatons of carbon dioxide, according to a recent review by Simon Evans of Carbon Brief. That is by far the most of any nation in the world, a fifth of the total. China has produced the second most, with 284 gigatons, though it has three times as many people and is often vilified by Americans as the great climate scoundrel. Next is Russia, with 173, followed by Brazil (113), Indonesia (103), Germany (89), India (86), the U.K. (75), Japan (67), and Canada (66).

In the U.S., where the term reparations typically encompasses both historical and current racial injustice, actual tabulations can get tangled in the messy, though intuitive, relationship between the two. (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s culture-changing essay on the subject from 2014 landed on a call to study the matter.) When it comes to warming, you don’t have to calculate backward from climate damages, which are shrouded in uncertainty until disaster hits. Instead, you can work forward from the more hopeful principle of restoration. That is the clarifying moral logic of climate reparations: One inarguable measure of responsibility for anything that has been done is what it would take to undo it.

Technologies that can remove carbon dioxide from the air and begin to repair the climate do exist. We’re using them at infinitesimal scale, and staggering obstacles to their global implementation remain— but, usefully, these methods come with present-tense price tags. Climeworks in Switzerland is charging about $600 a ton. Other “nature-based” approaches promise removal for as little as $10 per ton, though each has limitations and drawbacks. There are skeptics of engineered approaches, too, but most scientists and researchers believe that, given investment and public support, at some point over the next decade or two, the price of extracting and storing carbon by scalable technique will fall to about $100 a ton. An alternate method of tabulating damages is called the “social cost of carbon”; recently, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern submitted that it was also $100 a ton.

From there, calculating the climate debt is just a matter of multiplication. What is owed is this: by the U.S., $50 trillion; by China, about $30 trillion; by the U.K., $8 trillion. In total, the bill would come to $250 trillion, more than half of all the wealth that exists in the world today.

These figures are a provocation—naïve, like many moral propositions. Carbon removal is not a one-click solution, as eager as the complacent consumers of the North are to believe in mirages of deliverance. It is more like the work of a century, and a planet, and much easier to imagine when contemplating the problem before a whiteboard wiped clean of politics and resistance than when planning an intervention in the real world. Reducing emissions by simple decarbonization—solar and wind and electric vehicles—is considerably cheaper. And talk of carbon removal puts the cart before the horse, since it would be effective only after a rapid transition to net-zero emissions: The more carbon we pump into the atmosphere, the harder a job it will be to remove it.

However naïve, the price of restoration is one way of calculating the climate debt imposed by certain people in certain places and times on other people in other places and times; that is, it is a way of articulating the scale of the ecological and humanitarian crime we are watching unfold, often pretending we are not perpetrating it ourselves. Working at the whiteboard, this would be the price of atonement.

II. ‘You Cannot Adapt to Extinction’

VANESSA NAKATE is 24 years old. She was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1996; since then, almost half of all the emissions ever produced in the history of humanity have been put into the atmosphere. Sub-Saharan Africa, where by the end of the 21st century a third of the planet’s population is expected to live, is responsible for under 3 percent of that total.

Oladosu Adenike is 27. She was born in 1994 in Abuja, Nigeria, where in September lethal floods destroyed more than a hundred homes. In Lagos, floods cost an estimated $4 billion each year. In the Lake Chad region, warming is leading to armed conflict between farmers and herders, she says, driving a rise in “crime, kidnapping, and banditry” and contributing to a national epidemic of child brides—20 million or more, according to unicef. She calls climate change “a pandemic that we cannot isolate from, that we cannot quarantine from.”

Disha Ravi is 23. She was born in 1998 in Tiptur, India, where by 2050, in even a moderate-warming scenario, the number of days each year when temperatures reach a threshold of lethality is expected to approach 100. A few hundred miles south, the number is expected to grow from about that level, where it already is today, well past 200.

“We have the whole package of the climate crisis,” Ravi tells me. “Like, name a disaster and we have it.” Tropical cyclones, the equivalent of Atlantic hurricanes, have hit the subcontinent from two sides nearly at once. “In Karnataka, my home state, we have a water crisis; we have drought,” she says. “In Rajasthan, again, we have drought. In Delhi, we have heatwaves.” She mentions the flooding in Mumbai, underwater now for stretches every year, with recent rains bringing down an apartment building and, in the surrounding countryside, destroying whole villages. “There’s an increase in sexual trafficking when floods hit,” she says. “I would have not in my life thought that this would be seen as, like, an opportunity for sexual traffickers to traffic women. But people lose their homes, they lose their jobs, and they lose documentation. They lose life as they know it. They’re just struggling for money. And when the relief work that the government does isn’t enough, like most times …” Ravi trails off. “There’ve been millions of people who’ve died of bad air quality, and millions more don’t have access to clean water. And we’re in a pandemic.

Everyone keeps saying, ‘Well, wash your hands to prevent covid from spreading.’ With what water? With what water are they supposed to wash their hands?”

At some point, observing the crisis from the global North, you have to ask yourself: Is a person in the global South a person to me? And if what the right answer demands of you feels extreme, consider what it would mean, in the midst of climate breakdown, to answer in the negative.

The total burden of climate change in the developing world is hard to quantify, not just because of the uncertainty that governs all projections of future warming but because the research on the poorer parts of the globe has been prejudicially thin. The research we do have is grim. In northern Africa, according to a review by Carbon Brief, the average drought would last 20 months at two degrees Celsius of warming; heat waves would grow between sevenfold and tenfold across the continent. By the end of the century, even moderate scenarios could increase the number of Africans exposed to dangerous urban heat by a factor of 20. The Institute for Economics and Peace recently identified three belts of impending ecological disaster especially vulnerable to conflict and collapse: one stretching from Mauritania to Somalia, another from Angola to Madagascar, and the third from Syria to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the global North may benefit. In Canada, Russia, and parts of Scandinavia, even high-end warming could more than triple per capita GDP, according to some economic analysis. Research by Marshall Burke and Noah Diffenbaugh shows that climate change has already exacerbated global inequality by as much as 25 percent. In India, they found, per capita GDP is 30 percent lower today thanks to warming. It is easy to skim past numbers like those, eyes glazed, but that is 1.4 billion Indians already on average about onethird poorer than they would have been in a world without warming of just one degree. We are on track for three degrees, which casts the hope among the climate complacent that economic growth could be our best response to temperature rise— paying for adaptive projects like seawalls in the developing world—in a withering light.

“The droughts and floods have left nothing behind for the people,” Vanessa Nakate said in late September in Milan. “Nothing except for pain, agony, suffering, starvation, and death.” She was addressing a conference of activist youth, giving what is perhaps the most memorable and vivid indictment of global leadership on issues of climate justice by any member of her generation. Onstage, she cited a World Bank report warning that 86 million could be displaced in sub-Saharan Africa; the 38,000 species on the extinction-risk “red list” maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; and the drought that has left Madagascar on the brink of “the world’s first climate-change famine,” in the words of the U.N. “Who is going to pay for Madagascar?” she asked. “Who is going to pay for the lost islands of the Caribbean and Pacific? Who is going to pay for the communities who must flee the Bangladeshi coastline? Who is going to pay for the thousands of species that fall off the scientists’ red list and into oblivion?”

Nakate, who founded both Youth for Future Africa and the Rise Up Movement, is sometimes described as the continent’s Greta Thunberg. But while the two often work together, their rhetoric is subtly different, which may help explain—beyond reflexive prejudice and the casual indifference of the global North to suffering in the global South—why Thunberg has been so quickly canonized and Nakate close to ignored. Thunberg’s message is selflacerating but also clinical: Look at the science, she says, and look at your own hypocrisy. Nakate’s message is a more direct indictment of western audiences: Look at what you are doing to us. This makes it all the more wrenching that she first gained real international recognition when the AP cropped her out of a January 2020 photograph of the world’s leading youth climate activists, the rest of whom were white.

“It’s not happening to them,” says Ravi, who was arrested by Indian police in February for distributing a tool kit for activists. “The person it’s happening to is us—the Black and brown people, the Indigenous people, the people of the global South. If the global North was actually feeling the impacts of the climate crisis, we would not be talking about the solutions as radical.”

In Copenhagen in 2009, at the conference known as COP15, developing nations extracted promises of $100 billion in annual funding for themselves to be paid by the world’s rich. “That money is yet to be mailed,” Oladosu says. At COP26, the U.N. climate conference taking place this November in Glasgow, African negotiators are expected to ask for a tenfold increase—to $1.3 trillion. When a South African diplomat recently proposed a smaller target of $750 billion, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry reportedly balked, unwilling to even discuss the matter.

“They think that’s economically not viable?” asks Ravi. “I’m just like, ‘Millions of people dying isn’t economically viable either.’ I think what the richer countries are going to do is push us, as the global South, under the bus to save themselves in the long run. That’s what they have been doing historically. And I don’t expect them to do better now. No.”

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