Climate justice and reparations
What is climate justice?
Climate justice refers to the need to redress the gross and continuing global injustices that:
- Countries from the Global North and their transnational corporations have collectively produced historic and huge greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels, which has immensely contributed to climate change.
- Global South countries, which have contributed very little to climate change, are the ones suffering from the damaging and irreversible impacts for decades already.
This situation of unequal impacts of global warming, along with the many ongoing debates on how to address climate change, is widely referred to as the Global North-Global South Divide.
What are climate reparations?
Climate reparations are a call to address the historic responsibility and wrongdoing of the Global North through acknowledgement, financial compensation, and systemic changes. Systemic changes include redistributing resources and changing policies and institutions that govern local and global production, consumption, distribution of goods, and transportation.
Understanding climate justice and climate reparations
Understanding climate justice and reparations needs to include a political and economic framework to appreciate why governments have so far failed to take commensurate actions on climate, either to reduce emissions or to address climate injustice.
All international decision-making meetings of governments, multilateral development banks, trade blocs and summits have climate change, together with the impacts of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, and the deepening economic crisis amongst their top concerns. However, climate change is considered to be one of, if not the, greatest threats to human and non-human species. The World Meteorological Organization confirmed that the world had the hottest period on record in 2023. Despite this, governments continue to fail to take climate actions that are commensurate to the challenges at hand.
Unequal responsibilities and impacts
Since the start of the First Industrial Revolution in Britain between 1760 to 1840 until today, humanity has used up 83% of the carbon budget – the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we can “spend” (emit) to limit warming to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). However, not everyone is equally responsible for the huge amounts of historic emissions that caused climate change, nor for the continuing huge emissions that are driving the planet to climate breakdown. Countries that industrialised earlier and became rich through a process which (amongst other things) involved unrestrained emitting are more responsible than others for much of the global warming and ecological destruction we face today. Most of the countries designated as “historic emitters” also fall into the category of “huge emitters”. The rich countries of the Global North have produced up to 92% of historical carbon emissions.
Likewise, most countries which are most vulnerable to climate destabilisation are formerly colonised countries. Although already argued by the global climate justice movement for decades, the intimate link between climate change and colonialism has only recently been acknowledged in the 6th Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that came out in 2022. The report explicitly mentioned that colonialism left behind “development challenges” that heighten vulnerability to climate impacts (Section 4, p.101).
Our narrowing window to avoid climate breakdown
The Global Carbon Project estimates that the amount of CO2 that can still be emitted is at 380 billion tonnes (GtCO2). At the current rate of emissions, this budget would be blown in just nine years. That fundamental reality introduces a great ethical dilemma, which must be addressed globally, commensurately, and responsibly in the discussions on fair shares of emission reductions and climate finance in the UN climate negotiations. Since the annual climate negotiation, or Conference of Parties (COPs), under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) started in 1993, governments of the Global South have been arguing for the recognition of climate obligations from countries in the Global North.
In recent years, flooding and wildfires are increasingly reported in Europe and other countries in the Global North. Wildfires have cost Europe an estimated 4.1 billion euros (4.43 billion U.S. dollars) in damages as extreme heat seared the Mediterranean from Greece to Spain in summer 2023. In 2022, Europe suffered an estimated 60,000-plus heat-related deaths. In North America, hurricanes are stronger, bigger, and slower, while wildfires are larger, hotter, and burn longer. This is exacerbating social inequality.
The Preamble section of the 2015 Paris Agreement first mentioned the need to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. According to the United Nations, “Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions”. In the updated version of their 1.5 ºC-aligned scenario released in September 2023, the International Energy Agency (IEA) asserted that there can be no fossil fuel expansion beyond existing oil, gas, or coal fields – and some existing fields and infrastructure will need to be closed early.
What are the financial costs of climate change?
The COP27 and the decisions from the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA) acknowledged the gaps in finance needs: at least US$4-6 trillion in annual investment for economic transitions. This amount does not include the “loss and damage costs”. Political support is needed to pay for loss and damage from climate change that is unavoidable or could not be prevented due to inadequate adaptation efforts. Estimates suggest that these unavoidable impacts could cost developing countries from US$290 to US$580 billion in 2030 and exceed US$1 trillion by 2050.
In 2022, a “Loss and Damage Fund” was finally agreed at the 27th UN Conference of the Parties (COP27) held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. In the context of the climate negotiations, loss and damage dates back to the original drafting and development of the UNFCCC in 1991 when the Alliance of Small Island States was formed, which includes 40 states, many of them developing countries within the G77 and China groupings. The Group of 77 is the largest intergovernmental organization of developing countries in the United Nations, which provides the means for the countries of the South to articulate and promote their collective economic interests, enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues within the United Nations system, and promote South-South cooperation for development. China is listed as one of its members. The grouping called for a mechanism that would financially compensate countries affected by sea level rise.
Questions arise about the climate obligations of emerging economies like China and India. China is, by far, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, putting more than twice as much into the air each year as the United States. But per person, the U.S. emits twice as much carbon dioxide as China does, and eight times more than India. Furthermore, China and India are not historic emitters and have only recently increased their emissions.
Governments in rich countries argue that there are no additional funds for climate finance due to the current economic crisis. That is simply not true. There is money, but it is just being wrongly allotted. Amongst other misallocation of society’s wealth, one vital issue is the fact that governments worldwide subsidise fossil fuels, directly and indirectly, to the tune of nearly US$6 trillion annually. The G7 countries, composed of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, shell out around US$88 billion a year in direct subsidies despite pledging to phase out fossil fuels by 2025 in accordance to the Paris Agreement goals.
What can we do to address climate injustice?
1. Polluters Must Pay for Climate Breakdown
For over one hundred years, fossil fuel corporations have driven climate change by profiting from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Many of these corporations have spent years denying that climate change is happening, despite knowing about it for decades already. Exxon’s climate scientists, for example, made projections from the 1970s onwards, which are now known to have been very accurate in their predictions about the rate of global warming and carbon dioxide emissions.
According to a report from Global Justice Now, United Kingdom’s “Big Five” fossil fuel companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and TotalEnergies), who have reported over US$170 billion in profit in 2022 alone, are collectively responsible for 11.38% of global historic CO2 emissions between them. The report further said that historic emissions of these five companies are more than four times the historic CO2 emissions of the 150 least emitting countries combined, and more than 28 times the collective emissions of the Least Developed Countries.
There is now a growing demand from climate campaigners to (1) keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to stop the harm, and (2) put a permanent tax on fossil fuel corporations’ excessive profits. These taxes could be used to fund “loss and damage” from climate change, which developing countries are already experiencing. There is also a need to break the influence of big corporations and financial institutions on climate negotiations.
2. Time for Climate Reparations
Transformative reparations are about harm repair and reworking distributive justice. “Loss and damage” is seen as part of climate reparations. Broadly, the demand for reparations seeks to address the profound and enduring inequalities generated and deepened through slavery, genocide and colonialism. Many of these demands have sought not only to confront injustice, but to fundamentally transform the structures, institutions, and logics of coloniality and global racial violence.
At the heart of the call for climate justice to address climate change is the call for climate reparations and the obligation of the Global North to extend climate finance to, and share technology with, the Global South. Importantly, reparations should not be seen as a form of international development aid. They should be paid over and above international development aid as a reparative justice compensation for historical wrongs.
Global North countries, on the other hand, have resisted being held financially accountable. They have regularly blocked attempts to set up a compensation mechanism in international talks. Recently, calls for such obligations are growing and becoming more unified around coherent demands.
What are the mental health impacts of climate injustice?
Climate justice is central to understanding the disproportionate mental health impacts of climate change, which are tightly linked to decades of poverty, colonialism, and extractive geopolitics. Research is emerging indicating that people in the Global South experience greater climate trauma while at the same time having far less in the way of support from mental health professionals. See, for example, John Aruta’s report on the Philippines and Climate Justice Coalition’s spokeswoman Shaazia Ebrahim report from South Africa on climate trauma.
The global response to climate reparations will therefore affect the degree of psychological adversities for people on the Global South; reparations can help reduce trauma and distress, even out pre-existing inequalities, and increase capacity to adapt.
How people judge fairness and equity is rooted in our psychology, which affects decision-making about climate justice and reparations. In turn, global tensions, such as the Global North-South divide, create the backdrop for everyday psychology and mental health – influencing us all.
Reconsidering Reparations by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, published in 2022 by Oxford University Press.
Articles and Online Sources
Analysis: Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?, published in Carbon Brief on October 5, 2021 by Simon Evans.
Causes and Effects of Climate Change, published by the United Nations.
COP27 Reaches Breakthrough Agreement on New “Loss and Damage” Fund for Vulnerable Countries, published by UN Climate Press Release on November 20, 2022.
Counting Carbon: Only 17% of the Carbon Budget Is Now Left, published in SciTechDaily on August 8, 2021, by the European Space Agency (ESA).
Fossil Fuel Subsidies, published by the International Monetary Fund.
G7 Agrees to End Fossil Fuel Subsidies and ‘Concrete Steps’ to Phase Out Coal, published in Earth.Org on May 30, 2022, by Olivia Lai.
Guest post: What the tiny remaining 1.5C carbon budget means for climate policy, published in Carbon Brief on November 11, 2022 by Piers Forster, Debbie Rosen, Robin Lamboll, Joeri Rogelj.
Revealed: Exxon made ‘breathtakingly’ accurate climate predictions in 1970s and 80s, published in The Guardian on January 12, 2023, by Oliver Milman.
The Paris Agreement, published by United Nations Climate Change.
The oft-overlooked psychological wounds of climate apartheid and climate colonialism, published in Gen Dread on February 17, 2021, by Britt Wray.
This month is the planet’s hottest on record by far – and hottest in around 120,000 years, scientists say, published in CNN on July 27, 2023, by Laura Paddison.
What will it take to deliver substantive progress on Loss and Damage at COP27?, published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science on October 31, 2022, by Adeline Stuart-Watt.
Wildfires Cost Europe €4.1 Billion as Temperatures Hit Records, published in Bloomberg on September 4, 2023, by Ellie Harmsworth.
Addressing Climate Activists’ trauma in South Africa by Shaazia Ebrahim, Global Climate Psychology for a Just Future (PsyFuture) Symposium 2023.
Climate Change and Mental Health Nexus in the Global South: Perspectives and Experiences in the Philippines by John Jamir Benzon R. Aruta, Global Climate Psychology for a Just Future (PsyFuture) Symposium 2023.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Ballester, J., Quijal-Zamorano, M., Méndez Turrubiates, R. F., Pegenaute, F., Herrmann, F. R., Robine, J. M., Basagaña, X., Tonne, C., Antó, J. M., & Achebak, H. (2023). Heat-related mortality in Europe during the summer of 2022. Nature medicine, 29(7), 1857–1866. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-023-02419-z
Barnwell, G., & Wood, N. (2022). Climate justice is central to addressing the climate emergency’s psychological consequences in the Global South: a narrative review. South African Journal of Psychology, 008124632110733. https://doi.org/10.1177/00812463211073384
Hicke, J.A., S. Lucatello, L.D., Mortsch, J. Dawson, M. Domínguez Aguilar, C.A.F. Enquist, E.A. Gilmore, D.S. Gutzler, S. Harper, K. Holsman, E.B. Jewett, T.A. Kohler, and KA. Miller, 2022: North America. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1929–2042, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.016.
Hickel J. (2020). Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. The Lancet. Planetary health, 4(9), e399–e404. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30196-0
IEA (2023), Net Zero Roadmap: A Global Pathway to Keep the 1.5 °C Goal in Reach, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-roadmap-a-global-pathway-to-keep-the-15-0c-goal-in-reach, License: CC BY 4.0
IPCC, 2023: Sections. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC,
Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 35-115, https://doi.org/10.59327/ipcc/ar6-9789291691647
Klein, E. & Fouksman, E. (2022). Reparations as a Rightful Share: From Universalism to Redress in Distributive Justice. Development and Change, 53: 31-57. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12695
Making Polluters Pay: Estimates for corporate climate debt and reparations. (November 2022). Published by Global Justice Now. Research and writing by Daniel Willis.
Pearson, A. R., Tsai, C. G., & Clayton, S. (2021). Ethics, morality, and the psychology of climate justice. Current opinion in psychology, 42, 36–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.03.001
Roberts, E., & Huq, S. (2015). Coming full circle: the history of loss and damage under the UNFCCC. International Journal of Global Warming, 8, 141-157. https://doi.org/10.1504/IJGW.2015.071964
November 20, 2023
Author: Dorothy Guerrero, Head of Policy and Advocacy for Global Justice Now
Editor: Colleen Rollins, Ph.D.