The Truths Copenhagen Ignored

Johann Hari in

Discarded Idea Three: Climate debt. The rich world has been responsible for 70 per cent of the warming gases in the atmosphere – yet 70 per cent of the effects are being felt in the developing world. Holland can build vast dykes to prevent its land flooding; Bangladesh can only drown. There is a cruel inverse relationship between cause and effect: the polluter doesn't pay.

So we have racked up a climate debt. We broke it; they paid. At this summit, for the first time, the poor countries rose in disgust. Their chief negotiator pointed out that the compensation offered “won't even pay for the coffins”. The cliché that environmentalism is a rich person's ideology just gasped its final CO2-rich breath. As Naomi Klein put it: “At this summit, the pole of environmentalism has moved south.”

When we are dividing up who has the right to emit the few remaining warming gases that the atmosphere can absorb, we need to realise that we are badly overdrawn. We have used up our share of warming gases, and then some. Yet the US and EU have dismissed the idea of climate debt out of hand. How can we get a lasting deal that every country agrees to if we ignore this basic principle of justice? Why should the poorest restrain themselves when the rich refuse to?

A deal based on these real ideas would actually cool the atmosphere. The alternatives championed at Copenhagen by the rich world – carbon offsetting, carbon trading, carbon capture – won't. They are a global placebo.