Time for rich countries to pay climate reparations

A recent super typhoon in the Philippines underlines the need for the Global North to help the Global South address unfair climate damages.
Harpreet Kaur Paul
Just As Well Series

Just weeks after the COP26 climate conference closed, Super Typhoon Rai hit the Philippines, packing wind speeds of up to 130 mph (210 km/h). 

Over 400 people died, mostly due to drowning, fallen trees and landslides. Coconut trees and electricity poles were uprooted with ease, homes built with corrugated tin and wood swept away.

More than 5.4 million people were affected, an estimated half a million homes damaged and countless community spaces lost — including for healthcare and education provision.

Over 662,000 were displaced into evacuation centres where diseases like malaria and diarrhea spread like wildfire. Others experienced power outages, food, and water shortages, more than 70,000 hectares of agricultural lands were affected and the estimated financial loss to agriculture and infrastructure is around £290 million.

The Philippines sits on a typhoon belt so it experiences a lot of typhoons. Nevertheless, it has witnessed an unprecedented number of extreme typhoons in the past decade because of climate breakdown.

The evidence for this is incontrovertible. Experts note that Rai rapidly intensified into a super typhoon over 24 hours just before landfall — a phenomenon made more likely by increasing global temperatures. An IPCC report released last year affirmed that the climate system is rapidly changing, and the scale of change is unprecedented. It also affirmed that weather extremes will be more intense and more frequent. The Philippines also faces accelerated sea level rise, more regular and intense storms, droughts, and flooding, and rising healthcare emergencies due to climate change.

As Arnel Murga, a Filipino journalist, recently put it, "The Philippines contributes less than 0.4% to the climate crisis; the Global North is responsible for 92%. The Philippines pays the price for problems produced in the north."

Murga's calls for climate justice in this context echoed those of Filipino diplomat Yeb Saño, who called for global solidarity — including loss and damage climate action and support — to help address the disproportionate impacts of climate harms in the south following Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and was one of the worst on record in the country.

Breaking point

Time and time again the historic culprits, the world's rich early industrialisers, haven't just failed to help the Philippines — they've actively blocked assistance.

In the same year that Typhoon Haiyan hit, and in response to Saño's and other Global South countries' diplomacy, a UN mechanism to coordinate knowledge on and address climate damages was created. But, since then, action has been blocked by the wealthiest countries — particularly the US and Australia. For instance, wealthy countries struck down calls for a Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility, a body created to address how to compensate developing countries for climate change-related losses and damages fairly.

While the US is responsible for the largest share of historic emissions and continues to extract fossil fuels, Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emissions from coal in the world on a per capita basis. They continue to delay climate action at home while outsourcing the consequences to the Global South and to future generations, and as a result practical support has been limited to voluntary aid.

"The Philippines pays the price for problems produced in the north." Image: Suzanne Lawrence.

It is beyond time for the governments and corporations that have extracted the fossil fuels driving our crisis and benefited from a system of development that hoards wealthy pay for the consequences. 

That countries in the Global South are disproportionately impacted by climate change is intimately linked to the labour, resources and land that was exploited and extracted historically in countries that continue to supply us with our food, phones, laptops, energy and more. As Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik notes in his brilliant book ‘The Memory We Could Be: Overcoming Fear to Create Our Ecological Future,’ mangroves, grasslands, rainforests and wetlands were destroyed to make way for quarries, plantations, ranches, roads and railways. "Ecocide," Voskoboynik writes, "came hand in hand with ethnocide.”

"Ecocide came hand in hand with ethnocide."

Subjugation to colonial practices such as producing sugar, coffee, rice, and cotton cultivation on large slave plantations remains an indicator for per capita levels of poverty today. Neoliberal trade policies have extracted and exploited communities in the Global South, draining mines and labour for profit and fuelling unsustainable consumption. Debt-riddled countries in the Global South have their freedom to build climate resilient infrastructure, renewable cities, villages and towns, as well as hospitals and housing, curtailed by the weight of interest payments and disciplining austerity measures if they're not met. Simultaneously, the health impacts and crop failure linked to creeping salty seawater, more regular and stronger storms, wildfires, floods and droughts, desertification, rising temperatures and disease spread are bringing countries in the Global South to breaking point

This is why corporations that produce fossil fuels should not be excluded. In 2019, the National Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines published findings from its four-year inquiry into the impacts of climate change on human rights in the country — which had been triggered in part by civil society responses to Typhoon Haiyan.

The commission concluded that 47 major emitting companies — dubbed the 'carbon majors' — could be found liable for human rights violations arising from climate change. It also claimed that companies which had obstructed evidence or deceived the public about the link between emissions and climate change could be liable under criminal laws. Given the non-binding effect of so many human rights mechanisms, however, the practical translation of this finding is yet to be determined. 

Big polluters must lead

To be sure, the Fillipino state is not innocent when it comes to contributing towards climate breakdown. It continues to build dams, expand mining, and open new coal-powered plants. It is also an incredibly dangerous place for activists resisting environmental destruction and encroachment — hardly a paragon of peace and justice.

But this does not negate the need for global action. The economic costs of climate change impacts are predicted to reach between $290bn and $580bn by 2030. At the upper end, this would equal more than the combined GDP of the world's 80 poorest countries, without taking into account the unquantifiable losses to knowledge, life and sovereignty. The amount will increase as countries fail to decarbonise. 

The economic costs of climate change are predicted to reach between $290bn and $580bn by 2030. At the upper end, this would equal more than the combined GDP of the world's 80 poorest countries. Image: NOAA via Flickr.

Rich countries — who are responsible for outsized emissions — must lead by reducing fossil fuel emissions at home which would fairly fund a just transition, and contribute to climate financing to prepare for and repair the impacts of climate change globally. The biggest cumulative polluters in wealthy countries have failed to take their fair share of action at home, and have promoted unsustainable industries through subsidies and degregulation. Then, they have either thrown crumbs at, or tried to profit from, funds to help countries transition to low carbon ways of moving, growing and cooking food, heating and cooling homes, and increasing the resilience of our infrastructures to climate change. 

In the interim, funds to help those facing impacts we can no longer avoid, from storms and flooding to heatwaves and sea level rise, have become necessary. Currently, no specific funding is available to help those that have contributed so little to our crisis evacuate safely, build new homes, remember lost places and heal. While the sums required for this may seem large, they pale in comparison with subsidies granted to the fossil fuel industry — an astronomical $5.9tn in 2020 — militarised spending, and the incredible accumulation of wealth by the richest who are also disproportionately responsible for emissions. 

The story of climate change is the story of a development model that has resulted in a profoundly unfair distribution of wealth and power within and between countries. Let's build the movements and organisations capable of tipping power and wealth in favour of people and planet, and act in solidarity with communities on the frontline of extraction, exploitation and climate injustice. 


Harpreet Kaur Paul is a co-founder of Tipping Point UK and a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick’s Law School.

The author’s fee for writing this article was donated to the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development in support of the ongoing relief efforts in the Philippines.

Feature image: Wikimedia Commons.

Harpreet Kaur Paul
Just As Well Series

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