To coincide with COP21, we invited researchers from the ISSC’s networks to share their thoughts on the conference and its outcomes. In this blog originally posted on EJOLT Professor Joan Martínez Alier asks “Todd Stern, why don’t you acknowledge the ecological debt?”
In one of the last days of the COP21 in Paris in December 2015, where the pressure in the streets from the environmental justice movement was lacking, the special ambassador from the United States, Todd Stern, reiterated again that “there’s one thing that we don’t accept and won’t accept in this agreement and that is the notion that there should be liability and compensation for loss and damage. That’s a line that we can’t cross. And I think in that regard we are in the exact same place, my guess is, with virtually all, if not all, developed countries.”
He had already said this in Copenhagen in 2009, leading to a famous exchange with Pablo Solón, the ambassador of Bolivia at the time, and now one more member of the downcast civil society groups outside the official meeting. At the time, as also in Cancun in 2011, Pablo Solón said that the glaciers of the Andes were dwindling, water would become scarce – which countries were responsible for this? Obviously it was not Bolivia. It was not either the Pacific Islands or Bangladesh threatened by sea level rise. Those responsible were the countries with disproportionate historical and present per capita emissions. The notion of common but differentiated responsibility had been included in the Climate Change Treaty of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Todd Stern should acknowledge not only responsibility but also liability. “As they say in the US, if you break it, you buy it.”
The notion of a climate debt (as part of a wider ecological debt) from North to South has been alive since 1991. It has produced a scholarly literature using physical indicators and even assessing its economic amount, either by estimating future damages or by counting the economic savings made by not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to the extent necessary to avoid climate change.1 Environmental movements of the South have insisted on the existence of an ecological debt, recently supported by the encyclical Laudato si (paragraphs 51, 52). The main point is not so much the calculation and payment of the ecological debt but the demand that liability should be acknowledged and, particularly, that the debt should increase no further.
Joan Martínez Alier is part of the EJMap project funded through seed grants awarded under the Transformations to Sustainability programme in September 2014.