In New York Magazine’s November 8-21, 2021 cover story, online today timed to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, editor-at-large David Wallace-Wells looks at climate change not just as ecological crisis but moral catastrophe – an existential threat to the world’s poor put in place by the world’s rich. The article explores the idea of climate reparations, approached not from an attempt to put a dollar value on the damage done, but “from the more hopeful principle of restoration.” Technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere exist and thus offer the opportunity to put a price tag on what it would cost to undo the damage.
Wallace-Wells first made his mark writing about climate change with the conversation-shifting 2017 New York cover story “The Uninhabitable Earth,” and his 2019 book of the same name became an international best seller. For Press Room he expanded on how he became interested in climate reparations, the scale of the problem, and what he hopes readers take away.
Climate justice has been a part of how I’ve thought about global warming since as long as I’ve been seriously thinking about it. But for years I’d hear — and even speak — the phrase “those who’ve done the least will suffer most” and focused on those two parts: the fact that the world’s poorest hadn’t done much to bring about the climate crisis and that the most intense and punishing impacts of warming were nevertheless coming for them. Only recently did I come to understand how much even that outwardly empathic phrasing elided the actual responsibility, which lay very heavily with the nations of the global North. It allowed those of us in that part of the world, horrified by what climate change might bring, to believe that those disasters and disruptions were beyond our control, without authors or engineers, almost like “acts of god” had been in previous eras. But the responsibility for the climate crisis doesn’t lie with “humanity,” it lies with the global rich.
Though I do believe that wealth can now bring about green prosperity and even some amount of abundance, I think that narrative of green growth — which governs not just the climate politics of the present but also shapes the way that most climate-concerned liberals in the global North regard the opportunities of the future — really elides how much we owe the wealth we have today to an environmentally poisonous economic history.
All the carbon we’ve ever put up into the atmosphere in the entire history of industrialization is still up there, and still cooking the planet, and will still be for centuries to come. This means that we can’t “forget” or overlook the emissions produced last decade, or the decade before, or the decade before that; past emissions are present emissions, as far as the climate is concerned, and we have the climate crisis we have because of those emissions, not because of what is being done today.
When I started thinking about how exactly to conceptualize the scale of that debt, I ran into an emerging field of thinkers on the climate left thinking about carbon dioxide removal as a tool of climate justice and reparation — Olufemi Taiwo and Holly Jean Buck chief among them. Both of them talk about the issues in persuasive moral terms, as I’m inclined to myself: a huge amount of damage has been done, and we have to marshal the resources we can to undo that, to the extent we can.
The climate crisis is too big to solve just with carbon dioxide removal and reparations, but we have to start thinking in much, much bigger and more expansive terms if we have a hope of securing a relatively comfortable future not just for the wealthy of the world but its poorest, as well. And while my own intuitions have been in that direction for quite a while, it was speaking with climate activists from the global South that really sharpened the picture in my mind: When we imagine climate apocalypse in the North, we are imagining impacts that have already landed in the South, where there are many fewer resources to respond. The picture is quite grim, and though humans are adaptable and resilient, what will be required to respond in those parts of the world are enormous — many estimates run in the trillions of dollars annually. To date, the Green Climate Fund is collecting less than $100 billion, and the rich countries of the world are balking at demands for higher commitments.
But overall, this piece isn’t meant to be a technical road map or a polemical call for reparations. What I hope it does is more basic: simply illustrate the scale of the burden the global North has dumped on the shoulders of the global South, in the form of carbon and warming, and ask that the reader not dismiss that as a “natural” feature of the world but an engineered horror.