It’s time to pay the world’s climate debt to Countries like Mozambique

Cyclone Idai, who made landfall on the coast of Mozambique. left the rivers swollen with overflowed rainwater, submerging whole villages. The entire city of Beira, with a population of half a million was fully erased. Including the casualties incurred in neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi, Idai took more than 1,000 lives and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless. Idai was the seventh of nine cyclones in the southern Indian Ocean this season, more than twice the usual average. More severe hurricanes are hitting the Atlantic. Dipti Bhatnagar, a climate activist in the Mozambican capital of Map, who works for the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth International, has been talking and writing about climate change in terms of debt—arrears owed by the planet’s rich to its poor. It is, as she puts it, elementary “climate finance.” Profits flow swiftly in one direction while costs pool up somewhere else. The balance is long overdue, because climate change is not just weather: It is systems, markets, financial networks, deals struck between government ministers and corporate executives or bankers, inequities that have the same contours now that they had centuries ago, when it was European gunships, not storms, that brought death from the sea to the shores of Africa.

From where Bhatnagar sits, the balance sheet is easier to read than it is elsewhere on the globe. Mozambique is, by the IMF’s reckoning, the sixth-poorest country in the world. Most people earn about $1.30 a day. Less than 30 percent of the population has access to electricity. Carbon emissions are low: The average citizen of Mozambique is responsible for 55 times less carbon emissions than the average American.

According to Bhatnagar, the United States and Europe have built wealthy, industrialized societies based on the burning of fossil fuels for centuries. Their wealthiest citizens and corporations have used their riches. If any equitable solution is possible, Bhatnagar contends, it cannot stop at ending the extraction and consumption of oil, coal, and gas. The countries and the corporations that have profited have accrued a debt, and they must pay. Bhatnagar means that very literally. An estimated 90 percent of Beira’s infrastructure was destroyed. It will cost billions to rebuild, to find housing and employment for the more than half a million people who have been displaced, to create a health-care infrastructure adequate to the population’s needs.

In the long run, Bhatnagar is imagining major, systemic change and a shift to a world in which communities control their own resources, but the immediate policies she is suggesting are hardly revolutionary: direct financial and technological assistance to the countries and communities that are currently footing the bill for the comforts of the wealthy, rigorous taxation on corporate profits and financial transactions. Proposals like the Green New Deal, she argues, will be neither equitable nor effective unless they look beyond national borders to include the rest of the world.

This includes not only Mozambique but Bangladesh, Haiti, Honduras, everywhere in the world where people are suffering unimaginable losses so that others, far away, can enjoy unconscionable luxuries. “We don’t all have the same responsibility,” Bhatnagar says, “and we don’t all have the same capability. Those who created this crisis must now support those of us who do not have the capacity to deal with it while it’s coming at us fast and hard.” Tackling climate debt does not mean, she cautions, a struggle of poor countries against rich ones. Neither profits nor losses are evenly distributed. In California’s Camp Fire last fall, private firefighters saved billionaires’ estates, while the poorest pensioners in Paradise died. In Mozambique, high officials stash money offshore while the poor, literally suffocated by garbage, die. “It’s about targeting elites,” Bhatnagar says, about searching out new forms of global solidarity and overturning a system in which most human beings, and the planet itself, count as externalities on a ledger of profit and loss. “We are challenging our leaders right here in our countries, and we need people in the Global North to challenge the leaders in your countries and to make the connections between our movements.”

The zeitgeist, she admits, is running in the opposite direction, to walls and blinders; panicked xenophobia paired with climate denialism; the rise of governments in the United States, Brazil, India, and elsewhere that are, as she puts it, “anti-people and anti-environment.” In much of the world, these connections are getting harder to see. In Mozambique, they are nearly impossible to ignore.

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