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How Does the US Compensate the World for the Damage It Has Done?

Climate justice advocate Basav Sen discusses the need to go beyond the Paris Climate Accord.

Environmental activists display placards during a demonstration in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok on September 7, 2018.

Janine Jackson: When Donald Trump declared he’d pulled the country out of the Paris accord in 2017, U.S. news media decried what was called an “irresponsible abdication of American leadership.” In 2018, one headline had it that, “A year on since Trump left the Paris accord, the world still craves US leadership.”

As with other issues, corporate media seem to see a bright line between Trump’s stance on international climate agreements and that of Barack Obama. As with other such demarcations, that’s not quite right, and in some ways unhelpful. For those less interested in partisan score-keeping than in planetary change, the touchstone is what must happen, as opposed to what any of various elites deem “politically feasible,” virtual code for preserving existing relationships.

What’s called for, our next guest says, is nothing less than to chart an entirely new path on international climate policy. Basav Sen is the Climate Justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. His article, headlined, “How Trade Agreements Stand in the Way of an International Green New Deal,” appears in the April 22 Getting to Zero issue of In These Times. He joins us now by phone from Washington, D.C. Welcome to CounterSpin, Basav Sen.

Basav Sen: Thank you for having me on your show.

I would like to start where your recent article starts, with what is problematic about an overweening focus on Paris, with the suggestion that the U.S. rejoining that accord would represent serious action, commensurate with the current climate situation. What’s wrong with that?

To start with, the Paris agreement is flawed. It’s a lowest-common-denominator agreement, which requires nations to make only voluntary, as against binding, commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It states a goal of keeping the rise in temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius, with 1.5 degrees listed as an aspirational goal. And we know from the most recent science that 1.5 degrees is an absolute upper limit of tolerable global temperature rise, if we aren’t to have disastrous impacts worldwide.

One thing that’s not recognized very widely, especially by the corporate media here in the United States, is that the United States was in fact instrumental in ensuring that the pledges in Paris were voluntary. It turns out it’s because the Obama administration claimed that a binding agreement, which would need congressional approval, would never get approved by Republicans in Congress. And that is, in fact, true.

However, one must ask, what would a real political leader do? A real political leader would do what is needed, namely a binding global agreement, and build the political case for it at home, instead of subjecting the safety of the entire planet to the domestic political compulsions and calculations of the United States, which is what ended up happening.

Let’s talk about what science and justice require, with specific regard to the United States, because the United States does, as you say—and I think it is generally understood—play an outsized role in the crisis. I wonder if you can talk about what that role is, and then what would it mean to acknowledge that role?

Right. So first of all, the United States has one of the largest global emissions of any country in the world, second-highest in aggregate after China, and one of the highest in per capita terms, excluding some wealthy oil-producing countries.

Also, cumulatively, the United States has by far the highest emissions of any country ever, 25 percent, about, of global emissions since 1870. And cumulative emissions matter, because carbon dioxide, in particular, lasts in the atmosphere for up to thousands of years. And so the warming effects we are experiencing today are attributable, to some extent, to greenhouse gases that have been emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and not just today’s emissions.

And given our outsized role, we obviously have an outsized responsibility to fix the problem. And one thing I emphasize in my article is that this isn’t charity. Rather, it is fixing what we have broken. And so, just based on that very simple principle of justice, the United States owes the world on funding for climate mitigation and climate adaptation.

And just to break it down briefly for listeners, climate mitigation means transitioning the world away from our destructive fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy, regenerative economy. And adaptation means making our economy and our societies more resilient to the effects of climate change, that we will inevitably keep experiencing even after we go through this transition, because of what I said earlier about greenhouse gases lasting in the atmosphere for a long time, and therefore warming effects persisting for a long time, even after we cut back on our emissions.

And you point out that part of what the U.S. responsibility, or debt, really, to the rest of the world would be, would involve helping other countries with things like aid and sharing of technology, and that one of the things that gets in the way of that are trade agreements.

Absolutely. Two elements of trade agreements, in particular, I want to highlight as obstacles to serious climate action worldwide. One of them is intellectual property provisions that a lot of these agreements have that could be an obstacle to the kinds of technology transfer that need to happen. Technology transfer for, let’s say, thin film solar panels, or for energy storage like lithium ion batteries, etc.

And the second element is what is called investor/state dispute settlement, which is where companies can sue governments—never the other way around—in secret trade tribunals, where a group of unelected, so-called trade experts judge whether a country’s regulations, be it for environmental protection or worker protection or community safety, interfere with the profits of private companies. And if the policies enacted by these countries are found to impact the profits of foreign private investors, then the tribunal could order the country to pay compensation to the corporation.

It’s such an insult to sovereignty, is it not, on the face of it?

Absolutely, and to democracy, if you think about it.


Because democratically enacted changes by democratically elected governments, in the public interest, can be overruled by unelected panels of so-called experts at the behest of a corporation.


That’s a profound end-run around just basic self-determination and democracy. And yet that is enshrined in any number of international trade agreements.

And that can really interfere with climate action. For instance, if countries decide to “keep it in the ground,” in other words, to phase-out fossil fuel extraction, then extractive companies could sue countries on that basis.

And this isn’t just hypothetical. It has actually happened to Canada, where a U.S. corporation called Lone Pine Resources has sued Canada over a fracking moratorium in Quebec.

Let me just ask you, finally: It sounds as though part of what we need to change is to change the media conversation, and the public conversation, from this vague notion about the U.S. “taking leadership globally” on climate change, and make it more about the U.S. taking responsibility. And that is many magnitudes beyond a rhetorical change; that’s the biggest change we could make, really.

Yes. Ultimately, this is about hubris. The notion that the United States leads the world in climate action, or even that the United States should lead the world in climate action, is based on arrogance. It’s based on this idea that of course we are the world’s greatest nation, and therefore, of course, we should lead.

While, ethically, as we’ve talked about on the show, really the question we should be asking is, how does the United States compensate the rest of the world for the damage it has historically done, in terms of emitting greenhouse gases? Which is a shift, a real shift, in popular thinking in the U.S. that needs to happen.

We have been speaking with Basav Sen, Climate Justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. His article, “How Trade Agreements Stand in the Way of an International Green New Deal,” can be found on the In These Times website, Basav Sen, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

And thank you for having me on your show, Janine.

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