Reparations: Making Wealthy Countries Pay for Their Contribution to Climate Change

A major human rights concern in climate change is that of environmentally displaced persons (EDPs):  people who are forced to leave their homes because of environmental causes ranging from climate change, development projects, industrial accidents, environmental degradation, the environmental aftermath of war, and lack of natural resources.  The Red Cross has already declared that more people are currently displaced because of environmental disasters than war.  Yet, the United Nations’ definition of “refugee” does not include the environmentally displaced, leaving such people unprotected under international law.

One way to address the needs of people displaced by climate change, a tragedy that will be felt most severely by those living at subsistence level who are also those least responsible for climate change, is through controversial financial reparations from wealthy countries, those that have emitted the most green house gasses and benefited the most from those emissions.

Unfortunately, despite the calls of scholars, human rights organizations, small island states, and indigenous peoples, among others, it seems that this is a human rights concern that any amendments or new protocols that come out of this conference are unlikely to address.  Panelists in an Indigenous Peoples panel I attended expressed the concern that too many participants in these negotiations believe human rights issues in general are not a relevant part of any climate change agreement, arguing we’re here to address carbon, as if the two aren’t inextricably intertwined.  And Steve Porter of CIEL explained that reparations for those displaced or suffering from other human rights violations resulting from climate change have been dismissed politically as a non-starter.  Bolivia is pushing for this and is viewed as being quite radical as a result.  And the United States has already dismissed reparations, with Todd Stern, US Special Envoy on Climate Change, saying he completely rejects the idea.  However, if a strong agreement does not come out of these talks, reparations for those who will suffer most severely as a result will be more critical than ever.