Climate politics can be brutally difficult. You have to tell the truth, for one thing, but if that’s all you do, you lose. The real trick is telling the truth in a helpful manner, one that opens doors. So kudos to Jason Mark, the Editor-in-Chief of Sierra Magazine, who pulls this off nicely in The Case for Climate Reparations, the cover story of the current issue.
The subtitle, “It’s Time the Carbon Barons Paid the Costs for our Unnatural Disasters,” signals the secret of Mark’s success. He’s asking for something real, but he’s not asking for the world. This is the Transitional Justice way. Reparations are just one tool in the toolkit, one device among many. The real challenge is to face history, and to do so in a meaningful way that makes it possible to then move forward.
That said, reparations are a very special device, for they go beyond the recognition of past wrongs to demand paybacks for historical debts. In South Africa, after Apartheid, these are the debts owed by colonizers to their former subjects. Today, in the United States, on the reparations for slavery front, they are the living legacy of the Confederacy, and of “reconstruction” and its cruelties, and of “the new Jim Crow.” (For more on these themes, see The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
But, again, Mark is making a measured case. He’s not even naming the great challenge of “differentiated responsibilities” a phrase from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that, overplayed in decades of often bitter negotiations, has left the realists terrified of equity in any form. Quiet conveniently terrified, actually. He’s just talking about the fossil corporates, his “carbon barons,” and suggesting that it’s their time on the block, their time to face history.
The Sierra Club should be congratulated for this piece. I hope they don’t have to put up with too much carping for running it. Because the truth is that, unlike the challenge of mitigation — which can to some degree be met with technology, and market mechanisms, and policy reforms — the challenges of adaptation and loss & damage are absolutely going to elude the devices of politics as usual. When the waters rise in earnest, and they will, when the deserts spread and intensify, and they will, the question of responsibility is going to hang heavy in the air.
In fact, it already does. And facing it in a helpful way is going to be hard. But, hey, we gotta start somewhere. Why not with the fact the Exxon lied?