Climate “Reparations”?


As a quick followup to my story today about the squabbling in Copenhagen over climate aid for poor nations who have contributed the least, but are poised to experience the worst side effects of climate change, more news from Denmark about where the US stands:

“I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like.”


That was Todd Stern, our chief climate envoy at the summit. One question: Did President Barack Obama approve that language? The US has gone over the top to show support for the UN talks, sending a bevy of cabinet-level officials to the international summit—EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner are all in attendance—and has officially embraced the idea of a (shared) $10 billion annual commitment to help poor nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. Yet on the key parts of any major deal, we're not all there, it seems.

Stern's comment is suspect for two reasons: It seems to cut against the American position on responsibility to the developing world. And it is using “reparations” as a boogeyman here—the fund proposed by the G77 and other aligned states is distinct and apart from the idea of retributive payment for past harm. The whole point is to prepare for the future. So why is our chief negotiator using such charged language? Maybe it’s to wiggle out of providing most of the billions required to stop the disasters and famines in store for the global south, or maybe it’s to draw a line in the sand in case, a century hence, the Bahamas starts a fight about its sunken nation. Either way, it stinks like a coal-fired power plant.


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.