A big topic of conversation today (well, it’s a big topic among the people I talk to, anyway…) is that of climate justice. Roughly speaking, this means the need to take into account that some countries have a historical responsibility for the large amounts of pollution they have created, while other countries need help dealing with the effects of that pollution, and with ensuring that they do not create an equally large amount of pollution. Thus, the historically responsible countries should help the other countries. Simple, when you put it like that, but it’s actually quite complex to arrange in practice.
It does bring to mind another similar, but much older, issue that has also been in the news recently – that of reparations for slavery. The effects of the slave trade between Africa and North America and the Caribbean are still being felt sharply even today, 150 years after the American Civil War ended slavery on that continent (and even longer since it was ended in much of the rest of the world). We see the relative poverty and discrimination against black people in the US; the resource based economies of the Caribbean that keep them poor; and the conflicts and troubles of places in West Africa where slaves were taken from.
Whenever these issues are brought up, western nations tend to try and bury their heads in the sand and ignore the people asking the questions. They are scared that if they admit any wrongdoing in the slave trade, they will be expected to pay billions of dollars in compensation and reparations for the damage they did over the centuries. And although we might say that maybe they should pay that money, they rightfully point out that handing over huge amounts of money to governments in countries that have conflict and corruption problems may not be the wisest solution – unless we want to help boost the balances of a few secret Swiss bank accounts.
However, a recently announced plan by the heads of various Caribbean states provides a much better way of looking at the reparations issue. Rather than directly asking for money, they are asking for European nations to help with medical treatment and education on the islands, and to help forge cultural and political links between the Caribbean and the West African nations that most of their citizens originally came from. This could help these countries become less reliant on western money, rather than more so – as an educated, healthy population with strong trading links with others countries would be much more able to fend for itself.
Hopefully, this plan will prove more amenable than demands for monetary reparations have proven to be in the past, and the European states will help it to get off the ground. It could provide some excellent opportunities for communities that have been oppressed and exploited throughout history, but it could also provide a good example for how we can approach climate justice in the future. Rather than obsessing about money and figures, we can instead focus on working together to provide the skills and resources necessary for poorer communities to survive climate change – whether that be the ability to make their own solar panels or hydroelectricity, or to build houses in ways that will resist sea level changes, or anything else. This will take a lot of coordination, and, yes, will cost some money – but if we can manage to agree to do this kind of thing over the incredibly divisive topic of slavery, then we should be able to manage it when it comes to environmental issues that affect us all.
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