The reality that Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, as well as low-income communities, suffer greater pollution exposures, health risk, and vulnerability to climate harm due to inequities embedded in US policies and history serves as another critical basis to identify claimant groups for climate reparations policy in the United States.
The global climate crisis is, fundamentally, a crisis of inequality. The climate crisis is fueled by the historic emissions of industrial countries and fossil fuel corporations, yet the impacts are borne most heavily by the nations and peoples who have contributed least to the crisis. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment report (IPCC AR6) made a historic acknowledgment that variations in vulnerability to climate impacts are the result of historic inequities in socioeconomic development, marginalization, governance, and histories of colonialism (Pörtner et al. 2022; Funes 2022).
These historic processes have directed social, material, and environmental harms toward some groups–such as people in poverty and Black, Indigenous, and people of color–and away from others. If societies and governments desire to confront climate change in a serious and just way, they must confront the drivers of climate inequality. If we consider the countries and populations bearing disproportionate climate burdens to be injured parties, then a climate reparations framework proposes that the countries responsible for the vast share of historic greenhouse gas emissions that have caused climate change should take steps of repair to redress the harms of climate crisis on these populations. International climate reparations aim to attend to these inequities through transfer of resources from countries responsible for the majority of historic greenhouse gas emissions to countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Given that environmental inequalities exist at every scale, a climate reparations framework can be similarly employed to address disparate climate burdens within the United States. Such reparations should be designed to directly address intertwined historic racial, economic, and environmental inequalities.
In the international context, Global North countries, whose development depended on resource extraction and pollution of the atmospheric commons, owe a tremendous debt to countries in the Global South, whose underdevelopment is largely rooted in these histories of extraction, and which are now the countries most impacted by the climate crisis. Simply put, the Global North countries responsible for historic climate emissions owe a climate debt to the most vulnerable countries and communities, and, from a reparatory view, that debt must be repaid through transfer of resources. Leaders of vulnerable nations, scholars, and climate justice advocates have called for global climate reparations between states or payments from corporations to impacted communities to address this debt (Harvey, Lakhani, and Gayle 2022; Willis 2022; Chugh 2022; Colman and Mathiesen 2022; Vyawahare 2022; Talakai 2018; Burkett 2009).
Climate reparations provides a legal and analytical framework to address climate inequality–an organizing principle for claims of injury due to the climate crisis, between impacted parties and parties viewed as responsible for causing those impacts. The crux of a climate reparations analysis is that the countries and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate crisis are those least responsible, and the corporations and countries that have produced the majority of climate emissions have a responsibility to redress the harm and damages their actions have caused to the climate vulnerable—that is, those who face the disproportionate burden of risk and harm from the impacts of the climate crisis, including women, people with disabilities, people in poverty, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
In international law, reparations are constituted by the conditions of restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition for the victims of some violation of international law (Shelton 2015). In this way, reparations programs are both backward and forward looking: meant to address past harms but also to improve the lives of those harmed, now and in the future. As Maxine Burkett (2009) writes: “On the one hand, reparations often seek to identify and compensate for an exact past harm. On the other hand, forward-looking relief recognizes that past harm has current and continuing effect and, rather than an exact calculation of monetary payment based on those current harms, reparations seek compensation to improve lives into the future.” This is acutely the case in reparations meant to address the impacts of climate change. Climate reparations aim to address harm due to past and present climate impacts, but also to support impacted peoples’ ability to endure—and thrive—in the face of present and future climate threats.
In the case of the climate crisis, the communities that are most impacted by climate pollution and the communities that are most vulnerable to future climate impacts are often the same. Thus, the climate reparations frame offers a unique way to simultaneously address past climate damage and address forward-looking vulnerabilities, with an intent to prevent repetition of harm. Through payments and investments in climate-harmed and vulnerable communities, redress for past harm can be designed and deployed in a way that begins to undo structures and patterns that perpetuate historic environmental inequality, and so mitigate further vulnerability to climate change. The full potential of climate reparations is not only that it is reparative but that it is also reconstitutive, contributing to what Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò (2022) calls a constructive “world-building” project. Climate reparations can contribute to undoing the structural pillars of inequality that have been fortified by centuries of history and can redirect resources to remake the world in more just and equitable ways.
The constructive view of reparations is more future-oriented and attentive to holistic, even global, transformation that aims to fundamentally address the structures and processes that have produced injustice—in this case, climate inequality. From this perspective, the project of climate reparations is not simply a matter of restitution or restoration to a previous state, but instead a forward-looking, world-making project. While Táíwò makes the case that global climate reparations would be a constructivist project, this paper argues that reparations within the United States could be similarly world-building, by directing resources to the harmed in order to directly undo structural environmental inequalities within the US.
Climate inequalities exist not only between nations, but also within them. The inequity of climate crisis impacts across the globe is mirrored within the United States. A growing preponderance of scientific literature demonstrates that multiple kinds of pollution disproportionately impact communities of color in the US, and that it is these same communities that are and will be the most vulnerable to climate impacts like floods, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves (US Environmental Protection Agency 2021a).
This is in part because the processes that created global inequalities of wealth, well-being, and economic and environmental harms are processes in which the US economy—which found its basis in chattel slavery and colonialism—played a linchpin role. The processes of extraction that colonizing countries perpetrated have resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the Global South to the Global North (Hickel, Sullivan, and Zoomkawala 2022). The trans-Atlantic slave trade extracted people from Africa, and resources from the Americas and the Carribean, to provide labor and produce goods in the New World colonies, including what became the United States, and then transported those goods for consumption of, at first, the white and wealthy populations of Europe and then eventually for the white elites of the New World colonies.
Over generations, explicitly and implicitly racialized policies have reinforced the legacies of colonialism and slavery and have fortified generations of political inequality and dispossession—particularly of Black and Native populations in the United States. The economic and social inequities produced by this racial hierarchy have consequently directed environmental harms to communities of color (Nardone, Chiang, and Corburn 2020; Mizutani 2019; Taylor 2014; Wright 2003; Brook 1998). For example, the conditions that created Cancer Alley in Louisiana and the vulnerabilities of Black communities in the American South to public health risks and environmental hazards are the same conditions of political, economic, and social disenfranchisement of Black communities in the region that institutions have perpetrated for centuries. The resulting environmental and health disparities are the result of the relegation of Black communities to environmental “sacrifice zones” (Lerner 2012).
Unequal environmental harms from climate disasters and unequal vulnerabilities to future climate impacts serve as the basis for a climate reparations program for climate-vulnerable peoples, or claimants. In the United States, certain policies have acknowledged and aimed to address these environmental inequalities. However, these policies fall short of naming the responsibility or liability of specific actors for inequitable climate impacts. Climate reparations policies and programs could offer a direct path to redressing the unequal harms of climate pollution, by directing resources from the harm-doers responsible for climate impacts to the harmed.
This paper evaluates the applicability of a climate reparations framework to the context of domestic climate inequalities, and the capacity of such a policy framework to mitigate climate-related harms for vulnerable populations within the United States. Recent climate litigation that identifies the US government or corporations’ liability for specific climate harms and climate risks, as well as proportional emissions and attribution science, can help identify those responsible for climate harms. A reparatory program can use these advances to directly address existing climate inequality, by confronting and redressing the moral and material injury of climate-impacted peoples and redistributing resources from perpetrators of climate harm to those harmed. This transfer of resources can be one constituent effort or the foundation for a broader project to undo the patterns of social and economic inequality that produce climate inequality.
An adequate national response to the climate crisis requires addressing structural inequalities, and climate reparations offers a lens that could help policymakers understand how to effectively direct resources to those who need them most. Policies and programs can be designed both to correct the injustices of the past and to fundamentally transform the institutions and structures that allocate resources and harms, helping to prevent the perpetuation of inequality into the future.