Climate Reparations: An Internationalist Approach for the Twenty-First Century

By Keston K. Perry

TOPSHOT – A view of damage from Hurricane Dorian on September 5, 2019, in Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco, Bahamas. – The death toll from Hurricane Dorian has risen to 30 in the Bahamas, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told American network CNN on Thursday. Authorities had previously reported 20 dead, but have warned that the final figure is sure to be far higher. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images.

Black Lives in the United States and across the world have long been discounted and disposable objects, throughout slavery and colonization to today’s subjugations and their many forms of institutional violence.[1] Across communities of different stripes and complexions, anti-Black racist logics are being exposed. These logics have been enshrined into laws of economic life, into the social contract, and have fostered long-term racial animus among those who benefit from its material structures and the status quo (see Wills 1997). Racialized people have suffered under the burdensome structures of states wedded to racial capitalism and extractive profiteering industries for centuries, with few opportunities for negotiation and conciliation.

Author and activist Kimberly Jones, in a spontaneous and heartfelt social commentary about racial capitalism, contended openly with the broken social contract, and with the fact that racial violence is a central feature of this fixed game of Monopoly, in which Black people are left with nothing after four hundred rounds of play. In this sense, the social contract did not exist for Black people.  Recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade in the United States reflect a violent and oppressive global racial hierarchy. Current uprisings across the world are a response to this oppressive system. The current protest movements against these conditions is so significant that legendary Black revolutionary Angela Davis considers these uprisings the largest global thrust against anti-Black racism in history. The current moment illustrates that reparations have a global constituency and must be pursued on an international scale.

FGN66F New York, United States. 21st Feb, 2016. NYC Solidarity Rally for Flint – A coalition of NYC Black Lives Matter activists and environmental justice groups marching on the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X to demand justice for the people of Flint, Michigan. Credit: Erik Mc Gregor/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

The slave trade, the enslavement of Black peoples, and Native genocide are the economic origins of the current position of Black Americans, and people of African descent globally. Economic expansion has caused polluting and devaluing of Black communities and lives. Overexploitation of environmental resources and the transplantation of entire societies using a colonial design template of pillage and plunder have also accelerated climate breakdown throughout the developing world. Centuries of anti-Black racism have underpinned this process and produced disproportionate and premature deaths among Black people, through militarized policing and mass incarceration, parlous health systems, environmental injustices, wealth inequality, and insufficient food and resource provisioning. All these interconnected, systemic injustices are even more starkly visible during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Reparations for slavery and colonialism strike squarely at a devastating milieu of intersecting forms of harm. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the disproportionate mortality of Black peoples, with three and four times higher death rates than white people in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. While climate disruption and economic harm are closely interlinked, I argue that they should be separated for the distinctive configuration of causes, and their effects across space and time. In their Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice, the CARICOM Reparations Commissions (2014) lists various forms of material reparations for slavery and Native genocide. In their new book From Here to Equality, William Darity and A Kirsten Mullen (2020) have gazetted the number of rationales and historical efforts to realize reparations in the United States. I think of these as configurations of economic reparations.

Climate reparations constitute a program for loss and damage to livelihoods, infrastructure, and peoples’ life chances due to ecological breakdown that date back to the mid-eighteenth century due to the uptick in greenhouse gas emissions and have been accelerated in the 21st century (IPCC 2018). These processes are closely tied to colonialism, economic expansion, and global neoliberalism. Climate reparations are quantifiable in monetary value, although the loss and damage extend beyond simple numeration, given the vast impacts of climate and ecological crisis on societies. Climate reparations also must consider non-economic losses, and are warranted by the long history of exploitation, extraction, environmental harm, and injury that aggravated these extensive losses to Black and Indigenous peoples. I suggest that the current reparations debate must return to its internationalist roots to address this climate devastation. Climate devastation is insensitive to national boundaries, as are both the novel coronavirus and the anti-Black racism that underpins its disparate effects. The Pan-Africanist movement, albeit imperfect, offers one analytical and discursive route to consider these dimensions.

Protesters march on the street to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on October 11, 2019. – thousand people demonstrated Friday in the main cities of Haiti on a call from opposition which claims, for more than one month, the resignation of the president Jovenel Moise; a movement that paralyzes all the activities of the country. Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images.

The climate crisis is one major consequence of industrialization in rich Western nations, especially Europe and the United States that shaped the anti-Black foundations of the current system and undermine long-term Black welfare and liberation. Marginalized communities for example within the United States, such as Flint, MI and New Orleans, LA, face serious environmental consequences that have reduced both life expectancy and wealth potential of Black Americans (Bullard 1993). However, these realities cannot be disconnected from the plight of developing countries like Haiti and other Caribbean island nations. The Bahamas, Dominica, and Antigua and Barbuda have faced enormous losses from climate-induced natural disasters in recent times. Their colonial histories and systems of extractive plantation agriculture, alongside concomitant weak infrastructure and institutions, resulted in the loss of protective ecosystems, overexploitation of land, harmful environmental practices by transnational corporations, dependence on narrow economic bases, and incursions on indigenous practices and knowledge about the environment (Douglass and Cooper 2020). Now, increasingly destructive hurricanes, droughts, massive flooding and storms, intensified by climate change, are devastating island communities.

This socio-ecological crisis that is global in nature, yet uneven in effect, shows the outsized role of major industrial nations and former colonizing powers in rapidly increasing rates of greenhouse gas emissions. The effects of emissions have been visible in the ferocious and frequent hurricanes that precipitate widespread losses to agriculture, fishery, tourism, deforestation, coastal erosion, housing, infrastructure (Bhatia et al. 2019; Trenberth et al. 2018) and loss of Black lives, with greatest impact on women and children. Based on what tends to be conservative estimates, the costs in terms of loss and damage in financial terms without fully considering the disruption to lives and livelihood are astounding: Haiti after Hurricane Matthew (USD 2.7 billion), the Bahamas after Dorian (USD 3.4 billion losses), Puerto Rico after Maria (up to USD 95 billion), Barbuda and Dominica after Irma and Maria (USD 155 million and USD 1.31 billion respectively) (ECLAC 2018b; IDB 2019; ECLAC 2018a; García-López 2018). These disasters are all connected through common experiences of islandness, ecosystem exposure, slavery, colonialism, and racialized marginalization within the global economy. Between 2000 and 2015, from 33 percent to 200 percent of the economic output of Caribbean islands was wiped out (World Bank 2017). In 2016, the average annual loss due to hurricanes alone in the Caribbean was USD 835 million (World Bank 2016).

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine Operations agents conduct search and rescue operations in Abaco Island and Marsh Harbor Bahamas on Sept. 5, 2019. The islands were devastated by Hurricane Dorian. CBP Photo Kris Grogan

A recent estimate showed that loss and damage to poor, and marginalized countries comprise as much as USD 500 million yearly (Richards and Schalatek 2018). Major storms occur with increasing ferocity and frequency. As many as three to six storms forecast to become category five hurricanes during the 2020 Atlantic season, and as many as 19 named storms are forecast, between six to ten of which could become hurricanes bearing winds that reach 120km/h or higher.

Broad international calls for reparations for the harm and devastation done to the planetary crucible that sustains human life are inextricably enmeshed with local communities facing state overreach and violent oppression. However, proposals for economic reparations are often limited within individual nation-states. Economic reparations in the United States, for example, are often associated with General William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1865 Special Field Order 15, issued after the defeat of Charleston, SC, documented by historian Eric Foner (2015). Liberated from a society which had violently suppressed them, the Black community of Charleston demanded land ownership and schools. Sherman began distribution of reparations, which became styled as “40 acres and a mule,” to formerly enslaved persons. This liberatory promise was ultimately never fulfilled as white violence and terrorism destroyed Reconstruction efforts. Contemporary reparations proposals attempt to return affected peoples to not only to a position before the harm was done, but to an improved condition. Conciliation and recognition by the state and groups who have benefitted materially from this exploitation and human damage have also formed part of contemporary reparations discussions.

In contrast, pan-Africanist philosophical commitments link the African continent with the African diaspora. Pan-Africanism’s roots lie in the collective, globalized experiences of African peoples. As an ideology, Pan-Africanism challenged the exploitative roots and negative categorizations of people who endured slavery and colonialism (Robinson 1990). W.E.B Du Bois (1903) and civil rights leaders were the early progenitors of Pan-Africanism. Du Bois in particular recognized and chided the United States’ imperialist misadventures in the Black Atlantic and European powers in Africa, speaking out particularly against the military occupation of Haiti (Byrd 2019). Du Bois became known as the first Pan-Africanist, a label coined by the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.[2]  In Back to Black, Kehinde Andrews (2018) demonstrates that early Pan-Africanism did not quite escape imperialism; the movement was founded in the seat of British imperial power in London, while its class configuration reified “the best of the race.” In Andrews’ view, Pan-Africanism accommodated certain forms of anti-Blackness, evidenced by personal transgressions of its leading figure Du Bois. Instead, Andrews argues for a Black radical politics of liberation. Despite these flaws, Pan-Africanism was a major innovation, particularly in its conceptualization of and commitment to internationalist solidarity. This vision of internationalist solidarity remains necessary and vital for delivering reparatory justice.

Du Bois recognized that inequalities created by global colonialism and white supremacy were inflicted not only on Black people in America, but across diverse yet interconnected geographies. Du Bois’ concluded that African nations’ “chief crime is to be black and poor in a rich, white world; and in precisely that portion of the world where color is ruthlessly exploited as a foundation for American and European wealth” (cited in Robinson 1990: 43).  Even if one rejects Pan-Africanism’s many quasi-colonialist associations, one simply cannot ignore the outsized role of the United States in global imperialism and economic exploitation, especially in Haiti and the Caribbean more broadly. This is why the present reparations debate’s exclusive national focus in the United States is really concerning and disappointing.  Returning reparations to its internationalist roots and recognizing the broad salience across space could meet the current moment and help upend both the colonial paradigm and global white supremacy.

There is something deeper at stake in the new climate reparations debate. Violent interventions and deaths brought about by state violence against Black Americans and Black Haitians, for example, underscore that economic reparations are a transnational cause. Notwithstanding, climate reparations continue an expansive program where economic reparations still have yet to tread.

The current disconnect of U.S. public intellectuals and activists from the international reparations movement, and the apparent amnesia about the interconnections between Black peoples in the Caribbean and U.S. civil rights struggles, is uncanny. Indeed, one cannot ignore how colonialism, American military repression, global economic exploitation, racist apartheid, and imperialism in Haiti, a few hundred miles from the New York harbor, and other places with major Black populations, are deeply interwoven in their common history. Black America deserves reparations for all the reasons Darity and Mullen (2020) point out, such as widespread employment discrimination, gross wealth disparities, neighborhoods with inordinately poor infrastructure, resources and safety, lack of access to quality schooling, a racist criminal justice system, and the general devaluing of Black people’s lives. Yet this harm has never stopped at U.S. borders.

The Trump administration’s gross mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and police violence towards Black bodies are emblematic of the U.S. state’s disdain of Black peoples, and is broadly entangled with a long history of Black subjugation abroad. The failure to mobilize in common cause for justice and create solidarities with the African descended peoples, including the international reparations movement led by Caribbean countries, also speak to a forgetfulness of this cross-border racial and imperial harm. Based on “a thick line from the nation’s origins to the present,” and the racial gulf in wealth accumulation this has brought about, it is only fair to acknowledge that white supremacy is not American-centric (Darity and Mullens 2020: 4). Although the U.S. represents white supremacy’s contemporary apogee, white supremacy is global in orientation and has perverse manifestations that work to subjugate and dehumanize Black people the world over.

The environmental and socio-ecological manifestations of anti-Black racism, I have pointed out, require a program of climate reparations that go beyond economic reparations. We must be careful to outline the distinctive contours and connections of global anti-Black harm, rooted in the imperial exploitation of Black bodies. Left in its wake are increased devastation and relentless environmental disruption that subverts self-determination and even harmonious existence in Black majority places. Haitians, West Indians, and Black peoples share these solidarities with Black Americans in Flint, Minnesota and New Orleans, and are likewise deprived of improved lives due to conditions that the U.S. and European imperial powers shaped through extractive misadventures for over 500 years. Climate catastrophe is an emergency for Black people globally, exacerbated by the historic legacies of colonialism and slavery. Current economic reparations recommendations for African Americans exceed the early Field Order for 40 acres and a mule; yet Haitians and the African diaspora deserve some version of 40 acres and a mule too for the incessant and growing climate injustices.

Dr. Keston Perry is lecturer in economics and political economist at the University of the West of England, Bristol in the Faculty of Business and Law. His work centers on the sources of institutional and economic change with a focus on exploring how social groups and communities, despite their marginalization, transform their societies. He has published on industrial policy, economic development, climate justice, and global finance with particular reference to resource wealthy countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. His most recent work was published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics and Energy Research and Social Science, and in popular outlets like the Guardian, UK, Al-Jazeera, and The Nation. He has served as an external advisor for the United Nations Development Programme and recently completed a report on climate reparations for the United Nations Association of the UK, as part of the Together First campaign that will contribute to negotiations in the 75th UN General Assembly.

[1] This post draws upon the author’s recent work “Realising Climate Reparations: Towards a Global Stabilization Fund and Resilience Fund Programme for Loss and Damage in Marginalised and Former Colonised Societies” (Perry 2020).

[2] President Nkrumah also made contributions to the first Pan-African Congresses in Africa during the twentieth century.

Works Cited

Andrews, Kehinde. 2019. Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. Zed Books.

Bhatia, Kieran T., Gabriel A. Vecchi, Thomas R. Knutson, Hiroyuki Murakami, James Kossin, Keith W. Dixon, and Carolyn E. Whitlock. 2019. “Recent Increases in Tropical Cyclone Intensification Rates.” Nature Communications 10 (1): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-08471-z.

Bullard, Robert D. 1993. ‘”The Threat of Environmental Racism.” Natural Resources & Environment 7 (3): 23–56.

Byrd, Brandon R. 2019. The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. 2020. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. University of North Carolina Press.

Douglass, Kristina, and Jago Cooper. 2020. “Archaeology, Environmental Justice, and Climate Change on Islands of the Caribbean and Southwestern Indian Ocean.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117 (15): 8254–62. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1914211117.

DuBois, William E.B. 1903. “The Souls of Black Folk.” In Writings, Edited by Huggins, Nathan. Pp. 357–548. New York: Library of America.

ECLAC. 2018a. “Irma and Maria by Numbers.” Focus: ECLAC in the Caribbean, 2018. https://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/43446/1/FOCUSIssue1Jan-Mar2018.pdf.

—. 2018b. “Preliminary Overview of the Economies of Latin America and the Caribbean 2017.” CEPAL. https://www.cepal.org/en/publications/42652-preliminary-overview-economies-latin-america-and-caribbean-2017.

Foner, Eric. 2015. Short History of Reconstruction. Abridged edition edition. New York: HarperCollins.

García-López, Gustavo A. 2018. “The Multiple Layers of Environmental Injustice in Contexts of (Un)Natural Disasters: The Case of Puerto Rico Post-Hurricane Maria.” Environmental Justice 11 (3): 101–8. https://doi.org/10.1089/env.2017.0045.

IDB. 2019. “Assessment of the Effects and Impacts of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas (Executive Summary).” Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank. http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=EZSHARE-1256154360-486.

IPCC. 2018. “Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C Above Pre-Industrial Levels and Related Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Pathways, in the Context of Strengthening the Global Response to the Threat of Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and Efforts to Eradicate Poverty.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Mills, Charles W. 2014. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press.

Perry, Keston, “Realising Climate Reparations: Towards a Global Climate Stabilization Fund and Resilience Fund Programme for Loss and Damage in Marginalised and Former Colonised Societies” (March 1, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3561121 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3561121.

Richards, Julie-Anne, and Liane Schalatek. 2018. “Not a Silver Bullet: Why a Focus on Insurance to Address Loss and Damage Is a Distraction from Real Solutions.” Washington, D.C.

Robinson, Cedric. 1990. “DuBois and Black Sovereignty: The Case of Liberia.” Race & Class 32 (2): 39–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/030639689003200203.

Trenberth, Kevin E., Lijing Cheng, Peter Jacobs, Yongxin Zhang, and John Fasullo. 2018. “Hurricane Harvey Links to Ocean Heat Content and Climate Change Adaptation.” Earth’s Future 6 (5): 730–44. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EF000825.

World Bank. 2016. “World Bank Group Engagement with Small States: Taking Stock.” Washington, D.C: World Bank Group. http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/244361475521083722/Small-States-Stocktaking-2016.pdf.

—. 2017. “Hurricanes Can Turn Back the Development Clock by Years.” World Bank. 11 September 2017. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2017/09/11/los-huracanes-pueden-retrasar-reloj-del-desarrollo.

 

 

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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