Why the Biggest Debt We Owe Has Nothing to Do with Money
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So climate debt, then, is about that loan that was taken out by industrialization. That industrialization caused carbon emissions that have resulted in climate change—changes to that one climate that we all have a right to. The one atmosphere that we all share equally. What the Global North did, then, was borrow the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb pollution—that was borrowed from the Global South, where people most feel the impact today.
And I’m sure that some of you are thinking: What is she talking about? We owe somebody atmosphere? And if that’s what you’re thinking, that’s actually what it is that I’m getting to. The atmosphere belongs to all of us. The Global North has steadily been depleting it—and it owes this climate debt to the Global South.
And I’m also offering a different way of looking at this climate crisis. Because for too long, mainstream US environmental activists have acted like they’re doing the world a really big favor by being activists. When perhaps a better way to look at it would be that this activism is a way of paying down this climate debt.
I asked you earlier to keep in mind this shift in thinking around the way land was owned. This marker of colonization in the Americas. That was a new concept, like I said, to a lot of people. And I’m asking you today to consider another concept. And that’s about what we share. Because it’s not just the earth. It’s the air, it’s the atmosphere. Just like words, we can’t touch the atmosphere, right? But it’s real. One group, the Global North, made it so that the atmosphere—which the Global North does not own—is threatened. And it’s felt most in the Global South. That’s the debt. And that’s the debt that needs to be fixed.
And don’t let anybody tell you that the Global South is now responsible for almost the same amount of emissions that the Global North is today. Because that ignores the fact that the Global South consumes tiny fractions of the oil and lumber and other extractions from there. It’s all getting consumed by the Global North. It’s meeting a demand from the Global North.
And if you’re curious about who the biggest single consumer of fossil fuels is on the planet, it’s the Pentagon, which gobbles up about 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Seventy percent of that is used overseas—a lot of it in the Global South. Some would say it’s part of this vicious circle in which the Department of Defense fights its wars, in order to be able to continue to extract fossil fuels, in order to be able to fight those wars, and so on and so forth.
And I think that we really need to start thinking about fixing this debt. We’ve got enough of banks going after mortgage debt and kicking people out of their homes. We’ve got enough students who owe $20,000, $30,000, $50,000 just because they wanted to do the right thing and complete their education. We’ve got enough people who owe massive amounts of credit card debt just because they wanted to try and get by. But what about climate debt? It’s a debt that’s been in default for way too long. And it’s going to take some serious corporate accountability in the Global North to begin paying it back.
So where do we go from here? Because we can’t just send someone up to the atmosphere and patch things up. It’s more complicated than that. And I know that you know that. And that’s why you’re here today. And that’s why you’re pushing your colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel extraction. But movements are successful when they’re about thinking broadly.