Who Cares About “Climate Debt”?

I’ll admit that I only recently got familiar with the concept of “climate debt” and the narrative around it. Dave Roberts has, I think, a good primer on the idea and some problems with it in which he deems the conversation non-helpful.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s positively harmful. At the end of the day, development assistance is like the apocryphal restaurant where you not only is the food bad, the portions are too small. Which is to say that the West has tended to be both stingy and ineffective in its allocation of funds. Given the problematic politics of foreign aid it’s pretty overwhelmingly important to work on the “ineffective” side. But insofar as you have an aid endeavor that you’re reasonably confident will actually work, the moral (and, I might add, practical) case for moving forward with it is pretty overwhelming for reasons that are totally independent of climate change. But by the same token, there’s no case for undertaking bad projects.

Part of the rhetorical function of the “climate debt” concept seems to be to try to get around that basic reality that bad projects are bad projects. Naomi Klein’s friends in the Sudanese government are bad dudes, and what they were asking for at Copenhagen was no-strings-attached government-to-government financial transfers. Giving them more money to spend on arming the Lord’s Resistance Army or fighting Omar al-Bashir’s war crimes indictment isn’t going to help anyone. And that’s the basic reality. In fact the worst impact the West has had on postcolonial Africa hasn’t been an unwillingness to give money, it’s been a habit of giving far too much money and weapons to people who pour it into oppression and destructive war.

The idea of some kind of categorical “climate debt” rather than a general moral obligation to do good short circuits the part where you think about the consequences of your actions.


Meanwhile, it’s always worth underscoring the fact that a lot of the most helpful things we could do for the poorest of the earth have nothing in particular to do with aid money or even climate change. Western policies about intellectual property, trade, and migration are not in any sense optimized for the benefit of the people most in need of help. On the IP front, changing things would do enormous good at extremely low cost. On the trade and migration front, the domestic politics are unforgiving, but the policy realities are positive sum.