Can Climate Change Fueled Loss & Damage Ever be Fair?

This, the new report from the Civil Society Equity Review coalition, is the first since the coalition began in 2015 to focus on Loss and Damage. It argues that the wealthy countries must take a great bulk of the responsibility for the impacts that climate change is already having in developing nations.

More specifically, this report, which has so far been endorsed by over 150 civil society organisations and social movements, finds that the US and EU are jointly responsible for more than half (54%) the cost of repairing the damage caused by climate disasters in the Global South.

It highlights how the world needs to establish effective responses to climate disasters, remake global food systems to be resilient in the face of destabilized ecosystems, and respond to increasingly frequent migrant crises in ways that protect the rights of those forced to leave their homes.

The report shows that the first step is for wealthy countries to immediately begin providing public climate finance, based on their responsibility and capacity to act, to support not only adaptation, but also just responses to the loss and damage already being caused by the climate crisis.

The report calculates countries’ “fair share” of responsibility using an equity analysis, based on historic contributions to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, and their capacity to take climate action, based on national income while taking into account what is needed to provide basic living standards.

Interview with Doug Henwood

On Sunday September 29th, I was interviewed by the excellent Doug Henwood for his Behind the News program. The link is here. Go to 25:04 to miss the first interview but pick up some of the modernist atmospherics of the show’s distinctive soundtrack, which fades into yours truly.

The interview is not bad. I normally hate listening to myself, but this is a half hour of crisp talk that actually explains, in a reasonably coherent way, the theory and politics behind the Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet piece I had in the September 30, 2019 issue of The Nation.

The Green New Deal as a step towards Emergency Internationalism

It’s likely, given the ongoing political insanity, that you’ve missed a key internationalist turn in the US Green New Deal debate.  It was Bernie Sanders’ team that made that turn, though we’re hoping that others (activists as well as politicians) will soon follow along.

The details are below, but here are the two key takeaways:

  • The national emissions reductions targets that most climate emergency groups have been advocating (e.g. 100% net zero by 2030, or even 2025 in the case of the British Extinction Rebellion folks) are effectively impossible if they are conceived in purely domestic terms.  They are also insufficient.  But Sanders has embraced a justice-based global framework that allows him to advocate for a properly scaled US reduction target, in this case 161% by 2030, and to do so coherently. 
  • Sanders’ internationalism is important because it extends the (usually all-domestic) Green New Deal vision to include the US fair share of an international emergency climate mobilization. In so doing, it points a path forward that animates the Paris Agreement (and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanism) and holds out hope for an effective planetary mobilization. This is a critical move, because only a global Green New Deal can succeed.

For a bit more detail, see below.


Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal plan leverages a key idea—that a true emergency climate mobilization requires nations to do their fair share in the global effort, rather than just acting within their own borders.  And it makes a very concrete proposal for how to put this idea into play.

Sanders based his proposal, and his specific estimate of the US’s fair share, directly on ideas that EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute have developed in their joint Climate Equity Reference Project, and that the Civil Society Equity Review coalition has been promoting for years.  

I recently had a prominent piece in The Nation which tells this story.  It’s called Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet, and it argues that a fair shares approach to international cooperation is essential to any even plausibly successful global climate transition.  Specifically, it proposes that a global Green New Deal can best be kickstarted through a proliferation of national green new deals that are structured to support international cooperation as well as domestic transformation.  The side effect, a very welcome one, would be the animation of the Paris Agreement and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanisms. 

Sanders’ plan calls for:

“Meeting and exceeding our fair share of global emissions reductions. The United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.  We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent.”

These are big numbers, and they underlie another big number in Sanders’ proposal: the offer of $200 billion in support to help developing countries reduce emissions.  The Sanders team derived this figure by looking at the projects in the Green Climate Fund portfolio to estimate what it would cost to achieve that 36% reduction in developing countries.

This is a big ask, particularly given today’s political situation, but it would be more likely to help trigger global cooperation than the almost-purely-domestic “net zero 2030” target that is so prominent within the climate emergency movement, a target that suggests that wealthy countries need only reduce their emissions within their own borders.  As if by de-carbonizing their domestic economies they would have done their fair part in the planetary mobilization.

The Climate Equity Reference Project has long argued that such a view is both ethically and politically nonviable.  But Sanders’ proposal marks the first time a major American political figure has taken anything like a coherent global fair shares position, and it is particularly notable for being embedding within a visionary domestic Green New Deal, in which the effort of financing a viable global climate transition would absolutely not be freighted upon the poor people of the wealthy world.  His fair shares vision is intimately linked to other agendas for progressive taxation, reduced military spending, taxes on fossil energy, and so forth.   

It’s important that climate activists—street activists and policy activists both—engage with the core ideas here.  We need a real debate about global climate justice, and that debate has to happen no matter who becomes the next US President.  For, just as radical decarbonization won’t happen in the US without a Just Transition, it won’t happen in poorer countries without a globally fair system of both mitigation and adaptation support.

Take a look at Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet.  It’s not long, and its written to help start a conversation about the emergency internationalism that we’ll need if we’re to stabilize the climate system in time. 

Stefan Ramsdorf has a point

Stefan Rahmstorf is a top-tier climatologist and a great explainer, so I found it notable when, in a recent post in RealClimate (How much CO2 your country can still emit, in three simple steps), he took a few baby steps into the fraught territory of global effort sharing.

His three simple steps are:

  • Pick a global temperature goal (like, say, 1.5°C)
  • Pick a global CO2 budget (which involves some thinking about uncertainty)
  • Pick a method for divided up the (very small) remaining budget between nations

I’m not writing to make a comment on Ramsdorf’s first two steps, which are explained clearly and astutely. Though I do commend his discussion of uncertainties, and I worry that he may be a bit too diligently optimistic when it cones to Earth system feedbacks .

And I do like his caution to think in terms of budgets rather than end dates, as per:

“This is why one should not attach much value to politicians setting targets like “zero emissions in 2050”. It is immediate actions for fast reductions which count, such as actually halving emissions by 2030. Many politicians either do not understand this – or they do not want to understand this, because it is so much simpler to promise things for the distant future rather than to act now. “

I’m writing rather to note Ramsdorf’s comment on effort sharing, which manages to be both naive and helpful at the same time. Naive because, once he has made the key point, that “dividing up the remaining budget” is a matter of climate justice, not one of climate science, he chooses to do this division in terms of equal rights to emit C02, which isn’t actually, in this highly stratified world of ours, very just at all.

Why this move? Because he wants to argue that “a principle of fair distribution needs to be universal and simple.” Which per-capita emissions rights certainly are, in contrast to actual justice, which would have to consider not just equality, but also capability (which means wealth) and responsibility (which means facing history).

Why then judge this oversimple analysis helpful? Because Ramsdorf’s bottom line is that “we have to reduce emissions very very fast in the developed world, no matter how you twist and turn it.” (See the comments). And because he adds that there will have to be “a longer tail of emissions from developing nations reaching zero later.”

Both of these conditions, at this late date, are going to be almost incomprehensibly difficult to satisfy. Still, there they are. And if we have to speak very very simply in order to make them understandable, there’s an argument to be made for doing so, even if it violates the prime directive: “as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

The State of the Climate Movement

Recently, the Great Transition Initiative ran an extended online debate which it called The Climate Movement: What’s Next? Participants were asked to give special attention to three questions:

What is the climate movement’s state of play?
What has worked, and where has the movement fallen short?

System change, not climate change?
Does defusing the crisis require deep structural and value changes, or can “green capitalism” get us there?

Do we need a meta-movement?
Does the climate movement need to build overarching alliances with environmental, peace, and justice movements?

Bill McKibben started the debate rolling with this fine piece. My contribution, which I called Globalizing the Movement, is here, and also below. You can find all of the featured contributions at the debate page here.

Continue reading “The State of the Climate Movement”

Global Inequality in the Time of Climate Emergency

For a cool graphic (but fewer words) see the version of this essay at

Something has changed.  I’ve been asking people in the climate movement what they think it is, and most everyone agrees.  When did it happen?  After the Paris Agreement, definitely.  But also after Brexit, and after Trump’s election, which put “the emergency” on the map for all to see.  There are lots of data points. In late 2017, David Wallace-Well’s piece in New York Magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, landed like a bomb.  In mid-2018 came the Deep Adaptation paper, which likewise was downloaded by the hundreds of thousands.  In October of 2018, there came the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C, and afterwards the air was crisper, the view clearer.  It was obvious that climate denialism, or at least classic climate denialism, had lost its legitimacy.  Denialism was just a right-wing scam, and everyone knew it.  And, of course, there were the storms, and the firestorms, and then the Green New Deal resolution, which was a watershed by any reckoning.  To top it all off, there came the Extinction Rebellion, and its unforgettable new exhortations, protest signs that simply said “Tell the Truth!”

So something has changed.  But what’s at stake, exactly, and what comes next?  Wen Stephenson beat me to this (in a fine piece in The Nation) but I’ve reached exactly the same conclusion.  If we had to choose one voice, one single slogan, to represent the pivot that we’re now passing though, it would be hard to beat Czech playwright and ex-president Vaclav Havel and his notion of “living in truth.” [1]  It’s an option more people are exercising, people who are sick of the lies.  Even the comforting lies.

So where are we?  Three points are key.

Continue reading “Global Inequality in the Time of Climate Emergency”

A conversation cum debate between Rupert Read and Tom Athanasiou

Back in March, I debated Rupert Reed at the Center for European Studies at Berkeley. Rupert is a British Green politician and philosopher (a Wittgenstein expert, actually) who has recently emerged as a spokesman for the Extinction Rebellion. The debate is not uninteresting. In fact, it got quite rather testy at several points, as for example when I felt compelled to defend the IPCC against Rupert’s rather apocalyptic take on radicalism. Here’s the video. . .