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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Climate Reparations Won’t Work

In the concrete rubble on Kanokupolu beach, Tonga, leaves have begun forming a cover, green and glossy amid the dull grays of the detritus in the sand. A year after the eruption of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai—a volcanic blast bigger than Krakatoa that caused a spike in global warming, reshaped the ocean floor, and wiped out two of the archipelago’s smaller islands—the devastation it wrought is still visible, along with the wreckage of vacation resorts that once stood here, a repair job that is yet to begin.

Last year’s catastrophe, which affected some 84 percent of the Tongan population, was the Pacific nation's third natural disaster in five years (it was hit by category 5 cyclones Gita and Harold in 2018 and 2020)—a byproduct of global emissions warming the planet, which intensifies storms and droughts, increases wind speeds, and causes sea levels to rise, raising the risk to nearby populations. While coming in at 190th on the global carbon-emission rankings (the US is second), Tonga is now one of many countries being battered by those on distant, richer shores, and being left to pick up the pieces. Aware of this grim fate being meted out to poor nations globally, conversations on how to redress the injustice have begun, largely boiling down to one solution: climate reparations.

A “historic deal” was struck at the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt earlier this year, with the promise to establish a fund that would compensate afflicted countries. Recommendations are due to be made at Cop28 (held in Dubai, ranked 28th for global CO2 emissions) at the end of this year. However, the details remain wooly on how or when they will go into effect. In their absence, it is hard to see the UN’s proposed fund as anything but a hastily applied band-aid, designed to assuage the guilty consciences of rich countries without grasping how to truly help those in need, or address the causes of these disasters in the first place. As Tonga has found, being repeatedly lashed by the elements requires far more planning and input into prevention than just a hasty clean-up job.

The country needs help, certainly. But having rich nations write a check is not enough. What Tonga (and countries like it) requires is crisis managers who have faced similar disruptions and are skilled at rebuilding communities, and boots on the ground to ensure the money goes where it is truly needed. In the immediate aftermath of last year’s eruption, some nations were quick to send resources, but they rarely matched up with the country’s needs, locals told me when I visited last month. Mounds of food, for instance, when the shops were full of it, were stacked up in a line of ships at the wharf in Nuku’alofa, the capital, delaying other more urgent supplies that then took days to unload. Other gifted items—trucks, clothes—were never even handed out. 

Managing these well-intentioned arrivals was nearly impossible with so many more urgent issues to get on top of—like building homes for the former residents of Mango and Atata islands, all of whom were evacuated after their own homes were destroyed. The first residents were only able to move in just before Christmas. This is a best-case scenario of what climate reparations would look like, in that the new builds solve a direct need, for which on-the ground knowledge and understanding was crucial in both planning and execution. But while these homes are an upgrade on the community halls they'd been living in for 11 months after the blast, there is no escaping the fact that many now live as 10 family members across two rooms, that they lost their jobs in resorts that were wiped out, and that had sufficient action on climate change been taken sooner, they would not now feel, as one mother told me, that they had been left with nothing. Their only recourse now is to simply hope another disaster doesn’t strike.

The concern, of course, is that one will—and soon. The Pacific especially is at risk: Kiribati, an idyllic atoll nation between Hawaii and Australia, has found itself being swallowed by the sea at such a pace that it will likely no longer exist in a few decades. Half of all households have been affected by rising sea levels, with six villages already entirely relocated. The Maldives, Micronesia, and Tuvalu too are predicted to disappear within our lifetimes, with soaring emissions responsible for the coastal erosion, destruction of plantations (and livelihoods), and severe droughts and flooding they and other vulnerable nations routinely face. Fiji is larger and wealthier, but it isn't immune to the threat either, as 65 percent of its population lives within 5 kilometers of the shore.

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The risk is that Cop28 will fail to prevent these futures and only serve up more of the same—more recommendations and targets, on both emissions and funding, that fall short without consequence. Climate reparations deal with the problem backwards by throwing money at an issue sufficiently far away from the people causing it, when it’s already too late. Instead, a two-pronged approach is necessary: developing a framework for reducing emissions that the world's biggest polluters have no option but to heed, and helping those suffering from their blowback with properly managed aid. That means not only giving residents a floor to sleep on, but plantations to manage and jobs to go to, so that they can create a sustainable future for themselves, and in turn make the country’s economy more robust too. 

To fail to do the former exposes either total obliviousness to how many times a country can rebuild, or how little the rich nations actually care. One woman I met in Tonga, who had seen her friend’s hair spilling out of a body bag after the volcanic blast, described residents as “exhausted”—from this tragedy, from the one that hit two years earlier, and the one two years before that. The state of people’s mental health had also plummeted, she said, as if the weight of these environmental disasters is only a matter of bricks and mortar. The houses washed away may be reproducible in spreadsheet form, but the lingering psychological impacts on families impacted by this crisis, while less easily quantified, is yet another desperate byproduct.

“Climate reparations” is a term amorphous in meaning, and in its goals too. Unless those are spelled out and acted upon—and those who fail to meet them held to account—poor nations will continue to pay the price.

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