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Going Down In History


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Another world is possible / ENVIRONMENT

Going down in history

The island state of Tuvalu will soon be swamped by the Pacific thanks to
global warming. But its fate lends weight to a concept of 'ecological debt'
that might yet change the world, as Andrew Simms explains.

Another world is possible.
Most people outside the White House now accept that we are causing such severe damage to the earth that humanity will have to change the way it inhabits this planet if it is to survive. What are the practical changes we could make that would lift us out of the current self-destructive spiral?

Near the end of the year 2001 the world shifted on its axis. But not in the way that you might first think. A small group of nine islands, home to only 11,000 people, became the world’s largest creditor nation. Let me explain.

For many years the most curious and interesting thing to happen to the Pacific island state of Tuvalu was the sale of its internet domain name .tv for $50 million. The odd lottery of an age partly defined by information had given these lucky few a windfall that their island neighbours could only dream of. But what the age gives, the age also takes away. Because, as Tuvalu traded in its virtual domain, it was also about to lose its real one.

Something unprecedented happened. The authorities in Tuvalu publicly conceded defeat to the sea that was rising around them. Global warming was claiming its first national victim. The Government of Tuvalu is in private negotiation with that of New Zealand to agree terms for the progressive migration of Tuvalu’s population.

Tuvalu is paying with its nationhood for the rich world’s experiment with the global atmosphere. It may be a land of ‘no mobile phones, one radio station’ and no regular army but Tuvalu is literally going down in history.

This small archipelago may only be home to 11,000 souls, but on other islands around them a further 7 million are threatened. And in Bangladesh 20 million people stand to become environmental refugees for the same reason, according to their environment minister.

Suddenly the familiar mental landscape of international relations is turned upside down. Over several decades a combination of quirks in the international economy and very dubious financial management by wealthy countries and their institutions made whole parts of the world in Africa and Latin America synonymous with the idea of debt. Now as the realities of climate change creep into people’s minds, the frustrations and crimes of the orthodox debt crisis will pale next to the scale and impact of ecological debt.

For at least the last 200 years two dynamics have driven the global economy. One is the enormous growth of material wealth underwritten by humankind’s rampant exploitation of our fossil-fuel inheritance. The other is the relentless widening of the gap between rich and poor. As the economy expanded, wealth and poverty diverged.

Artist and writer James Marriott showed what this meant for generations of his family living in Britain. His great-grandfather was the first to smell petrol and James was the first to travel in a car before he was born. His own parents, meanwhile, are the first generation to spend their pensions on international air travel – and because of climate change they may also be the last to do so. While his family enjoyed the benefits of the carbon economy, the gap between the richest fifth in the world economy and the poorest grew from a ratio of 3 to 1 in the early 19th century to around 80 to 1 today. The gap between the top and bottom five per cent is even greater.

Now climate change means that the first dynamic linked to increasing pollution cannot continue. And the need to prevent further conflict within and between nations means that the second trend must be reversed.

A new awareness has dawned even among the high mandarins of globalization. In February 2001 the retiring head of the International Monetary Fund made the kind of speech he would not have dared to make at the height of his career. Michel Camdessus said: ‘The widening gaps between rich and poor within nations, and the gulf between the affluent and the most impoverished nations, are morally outrageous, economically wasteful, and potentially socially explosive.’

His counterpart at the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, later joined the new chorus of understanding: ‘All the academic analysis indicates that within countries the cause of crime and distress is frequently associated with poverty, and the extension of that to the international condition is that if you have instability and inequity, then you lack peace.’

The track record of recent attempts to deal with the global imbalance of resources is so poor that only a new framework of ecological debt can put it into perspective.

For the past decade the international development debate has been dominated by talk of aid and debt relief. Both issues superficially cast the rich world in a favourable light as generous, caring and paternalistic. Summit after summit of the richest countries promises finally to tackle global poverty. But while the public face is smiling, the true picture is ugly and decaying behind the scenes like Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray. Aid budgets have in fact fallen significantly since the early 1990s. Worse still, they are often politically tainted, economically tied and poorly targeted.

All the hype around international debt relief, too, has come to almost nothing. From an original list of 41 heavily indebted poor countries that might be given limited debt relief, only 23 actually qualified at the last count. And analysis by researchers at Jubilee Plus shows that all of those countries are now slipping back into having ‘unsustainable’ debts.

Have we been hoodwinked? It seems so, and in a deeper and more significant way than many imagine.

Because instead of the poor being in debt to the rich, it is the rich who owe an enormous ecological debt to the poor. The wealth of the industrialized world is built on the burning of fossil fuels. An average citizen in the US is responsible for 300 times more emissions of carbon dioxide than a citizen in a country like Mozambique. But why does this mean that the rich have an ‘ecological debt’?

The atmosphere is by definition a global commons – no-one owns it and we all need it. Scientists are agreed that the atmosphere can only absorb so many waste greenhouse gases from human activity before its balance is upset. This means that ideally our total emissions would be fixed at a level that will not disturb the balance. Also, logically, we would all get an equal share of the atmosphere’s ability to soak up our pollution.

If you were to scrape off the portion of rich countries’ income that is based on the unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels it would be worth trillions of dollars – around $13,000 billion a year for the seven richest countries.

But costs and benefits in a warming world are even more unfairly distributed. While countries like the US enjoy the free ride of a cheap-fuel policy, the brunt of climate change is borne by countries least able to cope, like Tuvalu, Bangladesh and Mozambique. The UN already calculates that the extra cost of natural disasters attributable to climate change is running at over $300 billion per year – and the difficulty of costing damage in poor countries means that figure may actually be twice as high.

The complex challenges presented to the international community by global warming and ecological debt are summed up by Eun Jung Cahill Che of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum. ‘What will become of [Tuvalu’s] territorial waters?’ he says. ‘What are the economic and security implications of disappearing exclusive economic zones? Can there be compensation for the loss of a country, its history, its culture, its way of life? How do you put a price on that? Who will pay it?’

What can be done to claim this ecological debt? If poor countries merely demand cash payments they are likely to get the same response they get when asking for more aid or debt relief. But there is something that could be done which draws on pragmatism, morality and logic.

The legacy of ecological debt can be recognized and dealt with by adopting a forward-looking plan on climate change. Developing countries can argue for a global deal that acknowledges their logical entitlement to an equal share of the global commons of the atmosphere. Instead of the historical expansion of greenhouse-gas emissions and divergence between the world’s rich and poor, there needs to be a plan for both contraction and convergence.

Fortunately, just such a plan, stemming from the London-based Global Commons Institute, is gaining favour among governments, the financial community and in developing countries.

Contraction and convergence requires setting a maximum greenhouse-gas concentration target for the atmosphere. After that, all countries logically claim their right to share the ‘emissions pie’, but can trade their entitlements if they wish. This way, if rich countries want to continue taking up more than their fair share of the world’s environmental space, they will at least have to pay for the privilege, generating much-needed resources for countries that need them.

The original all-American oil magnate Rockefeller once said that the poor shall inherit the earth but not its mineral rights. He could never have guessed that the world would soon face a challenge so potentially apocalyptic, that giving the poor their rights would become a non-negotiable part of the only real solution around.

Andrew Simms  is the policy director of the
New Economics Foundation and is writing
a book about ecological debt.


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