Note on "New York City Files Climate Lawsuit. . ." by Karen Savage

Patrick Bond

From: Patrick Bond <>
Date: January 10, 2018 at 11:46:44 AM PST
To: "" <>, Climate Justice Network <>, "" <>, demandclimatejustice <>, SCNCC <>, Durban Port Expansion <>, DEBATE <>, CJA International <>
Subject: [SCNCC Organize] (Fwd) US lost $306 bn in 2017 storm damage; 'climate debt' owed to NYC (!) by BP-Chevron-ConocoPhillips-ExxonMobil-RoyalDutchShell


(Right then, good on Bill de Blasio - yet won't journos at the very valuable Climate Liability News perhaps also point out that most residents of New York City owe the rest of the world a vast climate debt?

    And also, since Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S. has lost its protection against liabilities that its main negotiator Todd Stern had insisted on including in that bum deal.

    Yes, litigation may be necessary ... but surely the first step is mass conscientization on this matter, plus creative systems for repaying climate victims what they're owed? Some partially-baked ideas on how that can be done come from Ecuador, Namibia and here in South Africa, way below...)

New York City Files Climate Lawsuit Against Five Biggest Oil Companies

Litigation |

January 10, 2018

By Karen Savage

New York City is suing five major oil companies, becoming the latest in a growing number of municipalities attempting to hold the industry accountable for damages caused by climate change.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce in a press conference Wednesday afternoon the suit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, the five largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies as measured by their contributions to global warming. He will also announce that the city will divest its pension funds of $5 billion in fossil fuel investments.

“New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major U.S. city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels,” de Blasio said in a statement. “At the same time, we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”

The city will seek billions in damages to cover infrastructure improvements needed to protect New Yorkers from the increasing effects of climate change. The city has already begun implementing a $20 billion climate resiliency plan to protect city infrastructure from rising seas and extreme weather.

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, it killed 43 people, caused $19 billion in damages and flooded nearly 90,000 buildings. Two million residents were left without power and 6,500 patients had to be evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes.  It drove home the city’s vulnerability to climate impacts and de Blasio made climate action a big part of his initial campaign for mayor in 2012.

“This is what climate leadership looks like,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement after Wednesday’s announcement. “To confront the climate crisis, we must hold corporate polluters accountable in the streets, in the boardrooms, and in the courts.”

A recent study found that by 2030 New York’s 8.5 million people could experience Sandy-like flooding every five years and a report compiled in 2015 by the second New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) found temperature, precipitation and sea level rise are increasing in the city.

Climate science has overwhelmingly linked rising sea levels, increased temperatures and increased precipitation events to global warming.

According to the NPCC, mean annual temperature increased 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit from 1900 to 2013 and mean annual precipitation increased by eight inches over the same period.

Sea levels in New York City rose 1.2 inches per decade since 1900, nearly twice the global rate. The trend is expected to continue and according to the NPCC report, “projections for sea level rise in New York City are 11 to 21 inches by the 2050s, 18 to 39 inches by the 2080s, and could reach as high as 6 feet by 2100.”

When announcing a new city mandate in September that existing buildings cut greenhouse gas emissions, Mayor de Blasio underscored the urgency of addressing climate change.

“It’s important that we feel that we are fighting this crisis like our lives depend on it, because in fact they do. It’s a life or death matter,” said de Blasio.

“The next storm is out there – it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

The initial reaction from industry backers was to criticize de Blasio’s “politicization” of climate change.

“Mayor de Blasio is just the latest mayor to lead his city into misguided litigation against America’s energy manufacturers,” Linda Kelly of the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement. “The mayor’s decision to play politics with underfunded pension plans and sue U.S. energy manufacturers is the same divisive approach we’ve seen fail time and again. Similar to recent lawsuits in California, this headline-seeking stunt is an absurd attempt to politicize natural disasters, rather than a good-faith effort at securing meaningful change.”

Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Climate advocates, however, cheered the latest community to try to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.

“New York City’s impressive leadership makes me hopeful for the future, and the possibilities we have for addressing climate change from the city and state level,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. “New York City’s actions today should be a galvanizing moment for cities around the world, and others should follow suit with ambitious plans and lawsuits of their own.”



  • 10 Jan 2018

  • Seth Boreinstein

  • Washington

Weather disasters cost US a record $306bn

WITH three strong hurricanes, wildfires, hail, flooding, tornadoes and drought, the US tallied a record high bill last year for weather disasters, $306 billion (R3.776 trillion) – it had 16.

Costs are adjusted for inflation and NOAA keeps track of $1 billion weather disasters going back to 1980.

Three of the five most expensive hurricanes in US history hit last year.

Hurricane Harvey, which caused massive flooding in Texas, cost $125bn, second only to 2005’s Katrina, while Maria’s damage in Puerto Rico cost $90bn, ranking third, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

Irma was $50bn, mainly in Florida, for the fifth most expensive hurricane.

Western wildfires fanned by heat racked up $18bn in damage, triple the US wildfire record, according to NOAA.

Besides Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina all had more than $1bn in damage from the 16 weather disasters last year.

“While we have to be careful about knee-jerk cause-effect discussions, (many scientific studies) show that some of today’s extremes have climate change fingerprints on them,” said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society.

NOAA announced its figures at the society’s annual conference in Austin, Texas.

The US averages six of the $1bn weather disasters each year, costing a bit more than $40bn annually.

The increase in $1bn weather disasters is likely a combination of more flooding, heat and storm surge from climate change along with other non-climate changes, such as where buildings are put, where people move and how valuable their property is, said Deke Arndt, NOAA’s climate monitoring chief.

“Perhaps it is time to mandate urban development in a more resilient and sustainable manner, given the increasing frequency of weather extremes, especially along the nation’s coasts,” Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, said.

The weather agency also said the US, which has had above normal annual temperatures for 21 straight years, was showing the same warming effects as the rest of the world.

The burning of coal, oil and gas emits heat-trapping gases that change Earth’s climate.

This was the third straight year that all 50 states had above average temperatures.

Five states, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and New Mexico, had their warmest year ever.

Temperature records go back to 1895. – AP




Lynn Zinser

Only 90 companies are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all climate change. How long will it take before the world starts holding them accountable in court?

It’s already happening. It might surprise you to know that the vast majority of climate change lawsuits are happening in the US — although the rest of the world is beginning to follow. None have yet been won — but it took a long while before Big Tobacco starting losing big in court and many predict Big Carbon will follow suit.

Lawsuits aren’t the only liability. Insurers and ratings firms like Moody’s are demanding that governments and companies take climate change into account or face the consequences.

The nonprofit Climate Liability News is the go-to website for reporting on the intersection of climate change impacts and the law. We speak with founding editor Lynn Zinser. Before starting CLN, she was with Inside Climate News, where she worked on the Pulitzer Prize winning report The Road Not Taken on Exxon’s early research on climate change, which the company later abandoned and covered up.







Climate debt, community resistance and conservation

alliances against KwaZulu-Natal coal mining at Africa’s oldest nature reserve

in Bettina Engels and Kristina Dietz (Eds) Political and social impacts of climate change in Africa, Frankfurt, Peter Lang Verlag, 2018


Introduction: who owes climate debt and who is a climate creditor?


What liability exists for polluters – and what compensation should be given to victims of climate change, especially in Africa? Although the Global South faces much greater impacts from climate change, at least $200 billion in costs to residents and businesses in Texas and Florida caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in mid-2017 brought the terms ‘Loss and Damage’ into the public eye. The climate debt concept has been controversial, but in 2012 there was finally recognition by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that Loss and Damage require recognition and calculation. The insurance industry has been doing so for many years, but increasingly severe storms and threats from sea-level rise in Miami and surrounding areas mean real estate empires – including Donald Trump’s ‘winter White House’ at Mar-a-Lago – are at risk.


Nowhere is this more important than on the least-insured continent, Africa. Christian Aid (2006) scientists estimated that 182 million Africans were at risk of premature death due to climate change in the 21st century. In 2008, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change director R.K. Pachauri (2008:17) predicted, “In Africa, crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90% by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most affected.” A year later, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum (2009) calculated that more than 300 000 current deaths per year were already attributable to climate change, mostly in the Global South. Africa was most affected: in 2009, 22 African countries out of 28 across the world were considered at ‘extreme risk’ in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, whereas the United States was near the bottom of the world rankings of countries at risk even though it was the leading historical per capita contributor to climate change (Agence France Press, 2009). In 2011, the Washington-based Center for Global Development predicted that extreme weather events would affect Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Zambia and Zimbabwe by 2015 (Wheeler 2011: 15). Devastating droughts ranging from Southern Africa up to the Horn occurred in 2011-12 and in some areas (including South Africa’s eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal) (Stolley 2015) a new round persisted from 2014 into 2017, interrupted by extreme flooding.


Projecting the costs of climate change to the continent, African Union (AU) official Abebe Hailegabriel remarked, “Trillions of dollars might not be enough in compensation. Thus, there must be an assessment of the impact before the figure” (Redi 2009). There is also a debt owed to the African diaspora and people of colour because of systematic environmental racism in cities like Houston and Miami, according to Black Lives Matter: “The inequalities that turn an extreme weather event into a disaster or human catastrophe mirror the inequalities that cause the disproportionate loss of black and poor life globally – and the exact systems that Black Lives Matter fights against” (Cullors and Nyeusi 2017).


Meanwhile, world leaders have done very little to advance the climate debt concept since Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi raised the demand erratically in 2009 during preparations for the Copenhagen summit (McClure 2009 ). Grassroots articulations of climate debt have long come from African climate justice advocates, e.g. Nigerian activist Nnimmo Bassey (2010) and the general secretary of the PanAfrican Climate Justice Alliance, Mithika Mwenda. The activists demanded that Zenawi – Africa’s main official voice in Copenhagen – maintain his initially strong stance on climate debt. Although Zenawi and the AU did initially make a $67 billion annual demand for compensation, he came under severe pressure. First, French President Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded Zenawi to halve the figure just before Copenhagen, and then the US State Department (according to cables leaked by Chelsea Manning) compelled him to instead sign the Copenhagen Accord in exchange for Washington’s increased financial and military support to his dictatorial regime (Bond 2012a).


In succumbing to Northern pressure, Zenawi was “undermining the bold positions of our negotiators and ministers represented here, and threatening the very future of Africa,” according to Mwenda. “Meles wants to sell out the lives and hopes of Africans for a pittance. Every other African country has committed to policy based on the science” (Reddy, 2009: 1). Mwenda suggested, instead, that the African delegation could have repeated the continent’s walk-out from World Trade Organisation summits in both Seattle in 1999 and Cancun in 2003, when their denial of consent caused both summits to collapse (Bond 2006). This was not unthinkable, for on September 3, 2009, Zenawi had issued a strong threat about the upcoming Copenhagen summit: “If need be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent” (Ashine, 2009). And in a UNFCCC meeting the month before in Barcelona, the African delegation followed through with that threat.


Doubts about staying in the UNFCCC in spite of Copenhagen’s shift away from Kyoto’s binding commitments were repeated broken promises of North-South climate financing. In Copenhagen, such financing was meant to have risen to a sustained figure of $100 billion annually. But according to former senior UN officials Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram (2017),


As of July 2017, only $10.1 billion has come from 43 governments, including 9 developing countries, mostly for start-up costs. Before Trump was elected, the US had contributed $1 billion. Now that the US has announced its withdrawal from the 2015 climate treaty, the remaining $2 billion will not be forthcoming. Moreover, the $100 billion goal is vague. For example, disputes continue over whether it refers to public funds, or whether leveraged private finance will also count. The OECD projected in 2016 that pledges worldwide would add up to $67 billion yearly by 2020. But such estimates have been inflated by counting commercial loans to buy green technology from developed countries.


Unfortunately, the Northern strategy gained the full support of Africa’s most important negotiator and largest CO2 emitter, South Africa (Bond et al., 2009). Thanks to Pretoria’s 2009 ‘Long-Term Mitigation Scenario’ (Yawitch 2009), South Africa’s own rates of CO2 outputs were anticipated to rise through at least 2030. Only then are absolute emissions declines offered as a scenario. In the meantime, Pretoria has earmarked more than $100 billion for emissions-intensive coal generation plants and coal exports, so its delegation had no intention of challenging the UNFCCC from the standpoint of climate justice.


Back in 2009, with African countries and other poor allies in the G77 relatively weak (in spite of a very strong G77 chief negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping), the stage was set for the Global North to provide the clearest answer in multilateral climate policy to the question of who would be liable for compensating victims: blunt denial. US State Department climate negotiator Todd Stern insisted: “the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that” (Broder 2009). Stern maintained this stance over the subsequent years, and was successful in forcing it into the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which refused to countenance standard ‘polluter pays’ principles. Pretoria diplomat Nozipho Joyce Mxakato-Diseko chaired the G77 in Paris, and although she spoke eloquently about how power relations were “just like apartheid,” South Africa remained part of the bloc – including the US, EU and BRICS – which was pleased to prohibit liability and compensation within the UNFCCC (Bond 2016).


“The red line that US, EU and other developed countries in the Umbrella group, such as Norway have drawn for the developing countries,” according to Nithin Sethi (2015), was insisting “Loss and Damage would find way its way into the core Paris Agreement only if they agree to explicitly saying that compensation and liability issues would never be raised in future.” Just before the 2012 Warsaw UNFCCC summit, Sethi recalled, “A leaked US document at that time showed how it had briefed all its embassies across the world to oppose such an idea from the outset.” In Warsaw, Stern warned in relation to the emerging liability narrative, “I will block this. I will shut this down.” Although watered-down Loss and Damage language survived in the 2012 UNFCCC declaration’s final text, Stern’s ruthless defence of US interests ensured it was tokenistic. As explained by an advisor to small-island nations, Michael Dorsey, “A World Court finding could cause a flurry of exploratory climate lawsuits in various jurisdictions, so the State Department twisted arms, even threatening aid, to prevent island nations like the Republic of Palau from even putting it on the agenda” (Bond 2012b).


Although any such prohibition on seeking climate debt compensation was not contained in the November 2015 draft, the final Paris Climate Agreement a month later has a clause (52, Article 8) specifying that the deal does “not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” The phrasing is considered by the Global North’s lawyers to be sufficient protection against climate debt claims. As the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (2015: 45) concluded, “Northern countries have exempted themselves from paying for the effects of climate change to future generations.” (A similar form of liability is also contested by Northern corporations: climate-related financial loss due to the vast reserves of ‘unburnable carbon’ claimed by fossil fuel corporations, even though if we are to survive, such assets should be entirely devalued, according to Carbon Tracker, a City of London watchdog.)


Who are the climate debtors? The main countries emitting greenhouse gases today are China (around 10 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2013), the US (5Gt), Europe (3Gt) and India (2Gt), together responsible for 58 percent of world emissions. Taken in absolute terms and using the year 2000 as a (random) starting point, by 2017 six countries owed at least 3 percent of the world total each: the United States (33.4), China (18.1), Japan (4.8), Russia (4.0), South Korea (3.8), Saudi Arabia (3.4) and Canada (3.3). China and India emit in per capita terms at a far lower level than the Northern countries, and their leaders maintain the necessity of an upward trajectory of emissions at least through the 2020s, in order to ‘develop.’



Yet recent US and European claims to be reversing their emissions rise rely upon their corporations and consumers outsourcing large amounts of emissions to new production sites mostly in East Asia. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in developing countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper-middle-income countries to high-income countries” (Hawkins 2014). The amounts of such net outsourcing to China are vast, having risen from 404 million tons of CO2 in 2000 to 1.561 billion tons in 2012.


Regardless of outsourcing, the richer countries have – by all accounts – failed to cut emissions (or plan to do so) to the extent required. By late 2015, the (voluntary) Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) statement of the G20 countries confirmed huge shortfalls in emissions cuts. According to the NGO Climate Action Tracker (2015), “None of the G20 INDCs are in line with holding warming below 2°C, or 1.5°C.” The agency rated the following as ‘inadequate’: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey, with the INDCs of another set – Brazil, China, India, the EU, Mexico and the USA – also “not consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C either, unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort.” In other words, the Global North (including the elites of the poorer G20 countries such as South Africa) are digging themselves further into climate debt.


At the same time, the climate meltdown has been rising as a topic of global awareness, even in the Northern debtor countries subject to a barrage of self-interested climate denialism. In 2017, Pew Global Research (2017) identified 61 percent of those surveyed across the world rating climate change as a ‘major threat,’ substantially higher than 47 percent in 2015 and 51 percent in 2013 (with climate ranking just below terrorism as the world’s greatest concern). Simultaneously, the Northern and Southern elites’ multilateral climate policy was degenerating much further and faster, as were so many other global-scale power relations under conditions of multinational corporate influence, even before Trump’s ascent (Bond 2017). Indeed, Todd Stern was simply responding, as he continually reminded audiences, to the US Republican Party’s veto capacity over any such climate treaty if presented to the Congress, hence driving down ambitions of a comprehensive binding treaty to a mere voluntary agreement.


That veto capacity, in turn, was a function of the exceptional power of the fossil fuel lobby to purchase the service of politicians, who initially denied the existence of climate change and then when that was untenable, denied the role of greenhouse gas emissions in causing it. The primary actors included ExxonMobil, whose scientists knew about catastrophic climate change threats in the late 1970s but which covered up the information and funded denialist propaganda, and two oil tycoon brothers, the Kochs, who built a far-right anti-environmental lobby including the American Legislative Exchange Council (amongst whose 40 members are the carbon-intensive US Steel, General Electric, General Motors, 3M and Phillips Petroleum). The Council’s role under Trump is to remove worker, social and environmental legal protection.


Likewise, ExxonMobil – the world’s fourth largest firm – rose in power in January 2017 when Trump appointed its chief executive Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State. A contract for a massive $500 billion Siberian oil drill had in 2013 earned Tillerson the Russian ‘Order of Friendship,’ although a year later, the deal was postponed due to sanctions that followed Moscow’s Crimean invasion. The fluidity of anti- and pro-Russian forces within the White House and Congress makes it difficult to predict whether those sanctions will eventually be dropped, but regardless, the Trump White House has a vast network of corporate backers starting with Goldman Sachs bank, whose several former executives in the White House include Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and economic policy head Gary Cohn. (These conditions make ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs ideal world sanctions targets; Bond 2017.)


Extreme corporate power can also be found in other capitals. To illustrate, another instance of malevolent global climate governance occurred at Copenhagen when Barack Obama met privately with the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, India and China (‘BASIC’), in the process jettisoning the broader UN summit process so as to privately co-sign the Copenhagen Accord (Bond 2012a). An unintentional metaphor was uttered by the then head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (2009): “It’s a powerful signal to see President Obama, Premier Wen, Prime Minister Singh and Presdent Zuma agree on a meeting of the minds. These are the four horsemen (sic) of a climate change solution.”


The BASIC countries, which along with Russia are together better known as the BRICS, are among the world’s most carbon-addicted economies. From these states, large fossil fuel firms have arisen – e.g. respectively, in the BRICS, Brazil’s Petrobras; Russian oil and gas corporations Gazprom and Lukoil; Coal of India, Vedanta and ArcelorMittal; China National Petroleum and Sinopec; and South Africa’s new black-owned firms Oakbay (run by the notorious Gupta family) and Shanduka (founded by leading politician Cyril Ramaphosa), as well as the much larger Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Exxaro and formerly state-owned coal-to-oil firm Sasol (all formerly initiated at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and subsequently relisted in other stock markets).


BRICS fossil fuel companies have enjoyed outsized influence over public policy, often at the cost of major corruption scandals. The impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was due to Petrobras payoffs that motivated corrupt members of Congress to put in her place a more pliable leader, Michel Temer. Vladimir Putin had, after 2003, switched policies from opposing fossil fuel and other corporate oligarchs, to embracing them. Narendra Modi’s crony capitalists have long been notorious allies (Roy 2012), and China’s state-capitalist relationships have hinged on unlimited fossil fuel consumption (Smith 2017).


In South Africa’s case, the government of Jacob Zuma was paralysed in 2015-17 by worsening ‘state capture’ scandals associated with the three Gupta brothers and Zuma’s son Duduzane, including their 2015 acquisition of a major coal supplier to the state electricity company Eskom. This was feasible because that year, the Guptas had arranged that Zuma appoint a mining minister whom they strongly influenced. He was immediately flown to Zurich to put pressure on the chief executive of the world’s largest commodity trader (Glencore’s South African leader Ivan Glasenberg), to sell a subsidiary at a bargain price to Oakbay. Likewise, the president (and potential president after Zuma’s term ends in 2019) Ramaphosa was the former owner of numerous Shanduka coal mines, and was alleged by state whistle-blowers to have ignored the need for water licenses in one of the most ecologically-sensitive areas of the country (Bond 2014).


What difference does this make, when calculating which countries are climate debtors? The widespread nature of South African corporate corruption is undeniable, and is repeatedly analysed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (2016) as the world’s most extreme. Pretoria’s UNFCCC stance reflected this power, and it was not surprising that in 2011 a leading climate negotiator (Joanne Yawitch) moved from the government’s delegation to head the National Business Initiative, publicly expressing satisfaction that carbon markets were advanced when South Africa hosted the UNFCCC summit in Durban that year (Bond and Dorsey 2012). Earlier, from the mid-1990s, the first head of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Xolani Mkhwanazi) had authorised repeated contract approvals of BHP Billiton to receive the world’s cheapest electricity (around $0.01/kilowatt hour) – from coal-fired plants – for up to 5 percent of the entire grid, for the purpose of smelting imported bauxite in to aluminium. Meanwhile poor customers’ electricity bills skyrocketed to levels more than ten times as high, per kWh as BHP Billiton’s. Two other crucial apartheid-era officials (Finance Minister Derek Keys, Eskom’s Treasurer Mick Davis) had also moved seamlessly from public service to the leadership of BHP Billiton (the world’s largest mining house) during the 1990s, after helping the company acquire vast benefits from the state.


In this context of extremely adverse power relations and revolving doors between the state and business in South Africa and indeed across the world, it is insufficient to make idealistic arguments about climate debt. Also required is a convincing prospect of successful social agency, a problem mainly ignored in the academic literature on climate ethics as well as in advocacy for ‘contraction and convergence,’ and in the Berlin NGO GermanWatch (2009) film, The Bill, which is one of the most important tools in climate debt advocacy.


In other words, we must urgently ask, what kind of global eco-social justice movement is most appropriate to conceptualise and implement the Global North’s repayment of the climate debt, not to elites in the Global South who could well abuse such funds, but to the people directly affected? This chapter argues for creative relationships across race, gender, class and geographical terrains that might draw African activists into meaningful movement-building with Global North allies (including those based, like this author, in Johannesburg’s suburbs).


There is one ideal-type potential pilot project in South Africa in which to consider this argument and consider agency, in a rural setting of KwaZulu-Natal Province. The Somkhele and Fuleni residential areas (with 48 000 and 15 000 residents, respectively) and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi nature reserve have witnessed bursts of activism by campaigners against coal mining (EJAtlas 2017). Opponents of the existing Tendele coal mine in Somkhele (which acquired mining rights to 21 000 hectares in the vicinity) and proposed Ibutho coal mine in Fuleni (which is on hold following widespread protests) include more than a thousand women and men in local villages who have protested coal mining (Berry 2016). They attempt to farm relatively barren land under worsening drought conditions that were devastating in 2014-16, and to live without fear of their houses collapsing due to Tendele blasting.


The Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation (MCEJO) is their main local representative. As the iMfolozi Communities ​and Wilderness Alliance, they are joined by committed conservationists aiming to “Save Our iMfolozi Wilderness” (SOiW), led by the Global Environmental Trust. The latter group began mainly by attempting to protect white rhinos and other endangered animals in the continent’s oldest nature reserve, but in the tradition of the founder of the iMfolozi Wilderness Area, Ian Player, the Trust overcame white South African conservationist biases, so as to firmly embrace (not displace) nearby black communities (Barbee and Smith 2014).


The SOiW campaign is supported by highly-respected environmental lawyer Kirsten Youens and by allied NGOs elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal (especially groundWork) and Johannesburg (Women in Mining). They have been establishing the basis for unity in their joint fight, determining how to scale up the demand to halt coal mining and to reach other sites where decisions are made. These include Johannesburg, when pressuring the coal owners and creditors (e.g. protesting outside a shareholders meeting of Tendele’s owner Petmin in May 2017), and Pretoria, in trying to change national policies and laws related to mining and environment, and to withdraw permission the state gave to Tendele to mine in Somkhele ever closer to the iMfolozi park border.


It is dangerous terrain, Youens (2017) reports: "Lebogang Ngobeni, from the Fuleni Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal, recently received death threats warning that she will be killed for appealing a proposed bridge and road development that will open the area to mining. Other Fuleni activists whose lives have been threatened include Phila Ndimande and Billy Mqondo for leading opposition against a proposed open cast coal mine on the boundary of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, a sanctuary with the world’s highest concentration of threatened Southern White Rhino."


To improve their chances of success, it may make sense for a new argument to be deployed: climate debt should be paid to these campaigners in part by “leaving the coal in the hole” (their unifying demand) and in part by compensating the victims of climate change in this area. This could be accomplished both on an individual basis using a so-called “Basic Income Grant” (BIG) and, more urgently, by helping build the movement for environmental justice by strengthening MCEJO.


Before discussing this case, two precedents are first worth our consideration: a BIG in the Namibian town of Otjivero that for several years supplied mainly women-headed households with the equivalent of €8 per person per month (financed by a German solidarity movement), and a campaign in Ecuador to “leave the oil under the soil” in the Yasuní National Park, in the Amazon jungle at the eastern border with Peru. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Yasuní campaign has positive lessons for the KwaZulu-Natal activists, once they determine how Global North climate activists might join them in solidarity.


The case for climate debt payments in Namibia and the Amazon, and the saboteurs


Among many shortcomings, the Paris Climate Accord – described as ‘bullshit’ by leading climate scientist James Hansen (Bond 2016) – failed to both cut greenhouse emissions sufficiently, fairly and with accountability, and to acknowledge the ecological debt that those who benefited from such historic emissions owe to those already suffering from climate change. As Rikard Warlenius (2017) confirms, “Current climate agreements do not reflect considerations of justice or historical responsibility. Developed countries have emitted disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate change disproportionately affects poor countries.” Nick Meynen (2017) writes, “This historic emissions balance is no longer translated into differentiated responsibilities,” a concept Todd Stern also rejected at the 2011 Durban climate summit (Bond 2016). Paris negotiators essentially cancelled the climate at debt, in spite of Pope Francis’ (2015) Laudato Si appeal that “developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”


The concept of climate debt first emerged in 1992 at the Earth Summit of the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro of 1992, in an NGO ‘Alternative Treaty’. The Institute of Political Ecology in Santiago, Chile then made the case in relation to the ozone hole, followed by Colombian lawyer José María Borrero with a 1994 book on the topic. Research and advocacy were provided by the Foundation for Research on the Protection of the Environment, and then Jubilee South at its founding Johannesburg conference in 1999. That year, Friends of the Earth International and Christian Aid agreed to campaign against ecological debt default by the Global North, especially in relation to climate damage. In 2000, the concept was defined by the Quito group Acción Ecológica (2000: 1): “ecological debt is the debt accumulated by Northern, industrial countries toward Third World countries on account of resource plundering, environmental damages, and the free occupation of environmental space to deposit wastes, such as greenhouse gases, from the industrial countries.”


Three years later, Barcelona ecological economist Joan Martinez-Alier (2003: 26) calculated ecological debt in many forms: “nutrients in exports including virtual water, the oil and minerals no longer available, the biodiversity destroyed, sulphur dioxide emitted by copper smelters, the mine tailings, the harms to health from flower exports, the pollution of water by mining, the commercial use of information and knowledge on genetic resources, when they have been appropriated gratis (‘biopiracy’), and agricultural genetic resources.” As for the sums of money involved, “although it is not possible to make an exact accounting, it is necessary to establish the principal categories and certain orders of magnitude in order to stimulate discussion… If we take the present human-made emissions of carbon, [this represents] a total annual subsidy of $75 billion is forthcoming from South to North” (Martinez-Alier, 2003: 28). In 2008, a partial ecological debt accounting was published by environmental scientists: $1.8 trillion in concrete damages over several decades (Srinivasan et al. 2008). Co-author Richard Norgaard, ecological economist at the University of California, Berkeley, generated a crucial finding: “At least to some extent, the rich nations have developed at the expense of the poor, and, in effect, there is a debt to the poor” (The Guardian 2008). The study included factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, ozone layer depletion, agriculture, deforestation, over-fishing, and the conversion of mangrove swamps into shrimp farms.


In 2009, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador Pablo Solon tabled a statement for the UNFCCC:


The climate debt of developed countries must be repaid, and this payment must begin with the outcomes to be agreed in Copenhagen. Developing countries are not seeking economic handouts to solve a problem we did not cause. What we call for is full payment of the debt owed to us by developed countries for threatening the integrity of the Earth’s climate system, for over-consuming a shared resource that belongs fairly and equally to all people, and for maintaining lifestyles that continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of the poor majority of the planet’s population… Any solution that does not ensure an equitable distribution of the Earth’s limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases, as well as the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, is destined to fail. (Republic of Bolivia, 2009)


Coincidentally, as the climate debt argument became heated in 2009, a solution to a conceptual dilemma was attempted: how to compensate poor people who are the rightful recipients of climate debt repayments. The simplest form of payment distribution appeared in rural Namibia: simply passing along a monthly grant – universal in amount and access, with no means-testing or other qualifications – to each resident of a climate change-affected area via an individual Basic Income payment. According to Der Spiegel correspondent Dialika Krahe, the village of Otjivero was an exceptionally successful pilot for this form of income redistribution, funded at pilot stage by the German Evangelical Lutheran church and some IG Metall metalworker trade unionists (Krahe, 2009: 3-5):


It sounds like a communist utopia, but a basic income program pioneered by German aid workers has helped alleviate poverty in a Namibian village. Crime is down and children can finally attend school. Only the local white farmers are unhappy… Dirk Haarmann and his wife Claudia, both of them economists and theologians from Mettmann in western Germany, were the ones who calculated the basic income for Namibia. And both are convinced that “this is the only way out of poverty… a basic income would achieve what conventional development aid could never do: provide a broad basis for human development, both personal and economic” (Krahe, 2009: 5).


The first priority would be to supply a Basic Income Grant to those who live in areas most adversely affected by droughts, floods or other extreme weather events. Logistically, the use of Post Office Savings Banks or rapidly-introduced Automated Teller Machines would be sensible, although currency distortions, security and other such challenges would differ from place to place. The Namibian case has much to recommend it, in part because it amongst the driest sites in Africa. It was considered a major success, although limited to 2000 recipients for a delimited period (Ferguson 2014). The reasons for Otjivero not moving into permanency and becoming generalised as social policy in Namibia relate, first, to the unwillingness of the neoliberal-nationalist government to support this kind of entitlement, especially if funded from the former colonial power, Germany. Second, a much wider solidarity movement was not built in Germany or elsewhere, in part because an argument for linking Otjivero payments to Germany’s climate debt was not considered at the time.


The narrowness and truncated character of Otjivero’s Basic Income Grant notwithstanding, this was a timely experiment, because not only were environmental economists and critical ecologists moving the debate forward. In addition, in 2009 the World Development Movement and Jubilee Debt Campaign (2009) produced a major campaign document advocating large-scale resource transfers from North to South. Later that year, Canadian journalist/campaigner Naomi Klein (2009) argued for acknowledging climate debt in a powerful Rolling Stone magazine article, following up in 2014 with an exploration of case studies such as the Northern Cheyenne and Ecuadoran indigenous people’s struggles in her path-breaking book This Changes Everything (Klein 2014).


Klein stressed the vital role of progressive civil society in demanding justice through repayment of climate debt, using as a prime example Acción Ecológica and allies within Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities. Beginning in 2007, they argued for funding to be paid to the Ecuadoran government in the range of $3.6-5 billion so that $10 billion of oil would be left unexploited (given oil price fluctuations): a down-payment on ecological debt owed by wealthy European countries to Ecuador. Such a payment would allow the government to protect the Amazonian biodiversity hotspot of Yasuní National Park forever, from oil extraction (Martinez 2013). Klein (2014: 353) cites a 2013 research paper co-authored by Acción Ecológica co-founder Esperanza Martínez providing three reasons for the campaign: first, the precedent “that countries should be rewarded for not exploiting their oil”; second, to fund the renewable energy transition and other socio-ecological purposes once funds were “distributed democratically at the local and global levels”; and third, as “payments for the ecological debt from North to South.”


Moreover, Klein (2014: 356) insists, the most vital aspect of “the power of paying our debts” is the potential for empowering climate activists to halt fossil fuel projects, whether in south-eastern Montana or the Ecuadoran Amazon, just two potential pilot sites of ‘Blockadia.’ From her Global North vantage point, Klein (2014: 356) well understood that


the real battle will not be lost or won by us. It will be won or lost by those movements in the Global South that are fighting their own Blockadia-style struggles – demanding their own clean energy revolutions, their own green jobs, their own pools of carbon left in the ground. And they are up against powerful forces within their own countries that insist that it is their ‘turn’ to pollute their way to prosperity and that nothing matters more than economic growth.


The first of three kinds of saboteurs thus emerged: local elites. The highest profile of these was Indian prime minister Modi, who at the UNFCCC Paris summit threatened not to sign on grounds that his 1.3 billion citizens needed to emit their fair share of the earth’s carbon carrying capacity, even though it was no longer available. As seen by Al Gore (2017) in his sequel film to An Inconvenient Truth, the Global North establishment refused to provide sufficient low-cost financing for renewable energy to India, and it was only a promised technology transfer (in which Intellectual Property belonging to the firm Solar City was given to India free) that ensured the Paris Climate Agreement was signed by Modi. (Gore’s self-interested claim has been contested, but there is no doubting the argumentative logic.)


Sabotage was more concrete in Ecuador, where the Yasuní anti-oil extraction campaign was formally backed as a state initiative and then, when Northern funding proved insufficient, cancelled in August 2013 by president Rafael Correa. Ruling with an increasingly stern fist from 2005-17, Correa spent much of 2014 putting down a rebellion by local activists trying to resuscitate the project via a popular referendum, which he refused to permit, knowing that he would lose. On two other occasions, he banned Acción Ecológica, although in both cases the group successfully fought back (unlike another Yasuní-supporting NGO with strong ties to California, the Pachamama Foundation, which remained banned). Addressing local elite saboteurs is the responsibility of local activists, but it is vital for international solidarity that their role is understood – and delegitimised (at a time when Correa had a good international reputation for hosting Julian Assange in his London embassy and having defaulted on illegitimate foreign debt he had inherited in 2007).


Given that Modi made a very strong point, regarding the Global Norths’ historic over-use of fossil fuels, the second type of saboteurs are those like Todd Stern and Donald Trump who simply refuse to pay for that abuse: climate debt defaulters (Goodman 2017). One of the most notorious cases is in a region of Ecuador just northwest of the Yasuní National Park, where the US oil firm Texaco (later merged into Chevron) was responsible for $8 billion in environmental and social damage done in a prior round of drilling, according to local courts. Chevron not only won’t pay, it has slapped racketeering suits on the US and Ecuadoran lawyers who had successfully prosecuted the firm in Quito.


The third saboteurs are those who should know better: Northern environmentalists who refuse to reckon with the debt because climate justice is beyond their comprehension. As Klein (2014: 358) put it, “A great many Big Green groups in the United States consider the idea of climate debt to be politically toxic, since, unlike the standard ‘energy security’ and green jobs arguments that present climate action as a race that rich countries can win, it requires emphasizing the importance of international cooperation and solidarity.”


Can that perspective be shifted? In the particular case of Yasuní, the failure of major Northern environmental organisations to offer solidarity was certainly a factor, but the strategy was mainly sabotaged in 2013-14 by a combination of Northern governments’ debt denial, Chinese corporate oil thirst and Ecuadoran elite politics. Together they trumped the global-scale solidaristic social advocacy begun by Acción Ecológica. In the wake of the failure to more firmly establish climate debt, there is, however, a potential follow-up eco-social movement to take forward the main ‘Yasunízation’ principles: leaving fossil fuels un-extracted, protecting local indigenous people, transferring funds from the Global North to the Global South, and building a mass democratic movement to challenge conventional climate politics. For ‘Yasuní 2.0’ to succeed in coming years under Correa’s successor, Lenin Moreno (who was born in a small town on the eastern end of Yasuní Park), the sabotage of its first manifestation must be understood.


In sum, these appear to be the primary factors:


  • Correa mainly attempted elite deal-making with neoliberal regimes in Berlin, Oslo and Rome – which donated only a pittance to Yasuní fund – rather than going to the masses for broad support;

  • top-down efforts to woo elites distracted attention from bottom-up mobilisations required to force Northern governments to make grants to Yasuní;

  • such grants could have been framed as ‘climate debt downpayments’, aimed not just to leave oil in the soil but also to compensate oil and climate-related burdens in Ecuador from the Andes to the Amazon;

  • instead, Correa’s acceptance of climate finance drawn from carbon markets and offset strategies (e.g. Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD) for the Yasuní payment mechanism was considered equivalent to ‘privatising the air’ and could not gain the support of the climate justice movement;

  • likewise, the UN’s new Green Climate Fund was useless for Yasuní or similar strategies, given its pro-corporate biases (Bracking 2015);

  • Latin American societies whose states have Amazonian oil – including shale-rich Venezuela – taught the vital need to make red-green alliances;

  • but even at their peak before hydrocarbon prices crashed in 2011-15, elites in such states – Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia – were still far too committed to petro-socialism, petro-Keynesianism and petro-indigenism respectively; and

  • to illustrate, Correa secretly encouraged Ecuadoran oil companies to prepare Yasuní drilling plans and even negotiated future extraction with Chinese oil companies, and then when faced with an upsurge eco-resistance, became even more authoritarian.


Perhaps the most debilitating factor was that the formulation for paying the climate debt downpayment was top-down, and did not motivate sufficient world solidaristic sentiments. The project itself was sound: funding Ecuador’s general fiscus so as to compensate for oil extraction that would not be undertaken in the world’s most biodiverse hotspot. But the devil was in the details, for by virtue of its top-down strategy, Correa’s campaign was constructed in a manner that allowed wiggle room. The first wiggle was the move from a climate debt downpayment narrative to an offset strategy.


The second was a tokenistic payment by some European governments, including one (by Germany) accompanied by demands that Correa use the REDD mechanism to fund Yasuní. Berlin’s Minister for Cooperation Dirk Niebel insisted, “Germany will not contribute to a fund that is based on the philosophy of ‘payment for non-action’,” thus attacking the very foundation of the Yasuní strategy. Responding to intense pressure to assist, he did provide €24 million, but instead of being part of a project to leave the oil under the soil, Niebel countenanced only market-oriented projects. At that point, insufficient funds had been accumulated, so Correa announced the project’s failure in August 2013, and authorised the first phase of oil extraction. Before the Ecuadoran and Chinese firms proceed into Yasuní, a new strategy must avoid these traps, which indeed is the objective of Yasuní 2.0.


To take Otjivero and Yasuní’s best lessons forward and to avoid sabotage may also require finding potential sites where not only can fossil fuels be left unexploited, but also where those fighting extraction – Klein’s Blockadia communities – are in future rewarded for their ‘eco-system services’ to the planet. (The idea of “Payment for Eco-system Services” remains controversial in general, but in these particular cases merits an open mind.) Favourable publicity and moral support are given to campaigners such as critics of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in US First Nations communities and their allies defending against oil spills in North Dakota, or the Ende Gelände activists who bring thousands together to block Germany’s largest coal mine each summer. These courageous activists are deserving of solidarity financing in their fights for justice. To illustrate the stakes, the non-indigenous anti-DAPL activists led by Greenpeace were in 2017 sued for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to the DAPL by its Energy Transfer Partners, while in Germany, the firm operating the targeted coal mine and power plant (RWE) sued Ende Gelände activists for €2,300-10,000 each if they refused to sign a formal commitment preventing them from protesting (in any form) there again. The initiation of solidarity funds (such as for such activists is timely; doing so in the name of climate debt payments would be perfectly appropriate.


Likewise in Norway, one of the world’s major per capita emitters thanks to a lucrative oil industry, the 2017 Lofoten Islands Declaration endorsed by most climate activists insisted on leaving oil underground, starting with richer countries:


It is the urgent responsibility and moral obligation of wealthy fossil fuel producers to lead in putting an end to fossil fuel development and to manage the decline of existing production. We stand in solidarity with, and offer our full support for, the growing wave of impacted communities around the world who are taking action to defend and protect their lives and livelihoods in the face of fossil fuel extraction and climate change. It is a priority to elevate these efforts. Frontline communities are the leaders we must look to as we all work together for a safer future… 

   Not only are new exploration and new production incompatible with limiting global warming to well below 2ºC (and as close to 1.5ºC as possible), but many existing projects will need to be phased-out faster than their natural decline. This task should be first addressed by countries, regions, and corporate actors who are best positioned in terms of wealth and capacity to undergo an ambitious just transition away from fossil fuel production. In particular, leadership must come from countries that are high-income, have benefitted from fossil fuel extraction, and that are historically responsible for significant emissions.


The unit of the country is vital for legislative and regulatory purposes, but companies are the critical target for coal-face struggles. A 2015 study by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins (2015) published in Nature again made clear that the vast majority of fossil fuels must be left underground so as to avoid the 2 degree increase in temperatures expected to trigger runaway climate change. As The Guardian summarised, “Prospects are bleakest for coal, the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Globally, 82 percent of today’s reserves must be left underground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90 percent of coal reserves are unused in meeting the 2C pledge” (Carrington 2015). Moreover, a different kind of climate debt is owed by these firms to their shareholders: “Major fossil fuel companies face the risk that significant parts of their reserves will become worthless, with Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Exxaro owning huge coal reserves.”


Un-sabotaging future Yasuní-Otjivero style pilots: KwaZulu-Natal’s anti-coal activism


These three firms originate in South Africa, a country with per capita income in between Ecuador and Norway but with the world’s highest-ever recorded income inequality (0.77 prior to state redistribution)(World Bank 2014). Here, community and environmental activists have been fighting fossil fuels ranging from fracking shale gas in the western Karoo and KwaZulu-Natal Drakensburg regions, to the world’s worst single point source of greenhouse gas pollution at the Sasol gas-to-oil plant in Secunda (near Johannesburg), to Durban’s offshore oil drilling and petroleum refining (next to Africa’s largest refinery complex), to the coal mines and power plants in South Africa’s north and east provinces.



One particular case witnessing extreme tensions in recent years, including violent physical attacks on anti-coal activists, is the anthracite-rich region of northern KwaZulu-Natal. This site combines the oldest game park in Africa (Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, where the world’s last several dozen white rhinos were saved from extinction by Player during the 1960s), the adjacent communities of indigenous people who were victims of apartheid’s dumping-ground ‘Bantustan’ policy, households already adversely affected by coal mining at Somkhele, and a variety of local, national and international allies. There are also potentially progressive workers in the coal and smelting industries in nearby Richards Bay, including those at the world’s largest single coal export terminal as well as those who are members of the leftist National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, who have not yet been formally engaged but for whom a “Million Climate Jobs” campaign is vital for persuasion (AIDC 2017).


The gender aspect of the struggle against coal is especially important in this migrant labour-sending area, as explained by Samantha Hargreaves (2017):


Women carry the burden of the impact of coal extraction, combustion and ultimately climate change. They live in patriarchal communities where they are given primary responsibility for domestic work and care responsibilities. Men in their families and communities benefit from this unpaid labour. But so too do the corporates which save costs from the unpaid labour of women and girls. This is part of the logic of a capitalist system that steals and exploits to maximise profit. The South African government also benefits from women’s unpaid labour. Women “fill in” for absent public services related to water, healthcare (including homebased care of HIV positive people), education and general provisions for social security of the young, sick and elderly…

   The Somkhele and Fuleni region was declared a disaster area in 2015. The drought is due to the El Niño weather phenomenon which is more severe because of climate change. In the last six months, leading women activists in both these communities have begun to strengthen their organising, using water as the entry point. Their organising addresses the water grabs by Somkhele’s Tendele mine, the deepening drought, water pollution, and very importantly corruption and illegality surrounding water services provided by the local municipalities. They have researched and documented the impacts of these processes on their communities, and on women in particular…

   The most serious impact of the [proposed] Ibutho mine will be that the already acute water shortage will get worse. The proposed mine will use at least the equivalent of 56 municipal swimming pools of water a day to operate. Farming has historically been a main source of livelihood to the Fuleni community. The drought has devastated local agriculture and decimated livestock, which is one of the main forms of saving amongst rural peoples. The coal dust from the Tendele mine in Somkhele is, in part, blamed for the erosion of local farming.


Supporting the demand to “leave the coal in the hole” at Somkhele and Fuleni – for a variety of reasons – is a growing solidarity movement ranging from communities facing similar mining threats and environmentalists to Avaaz’s constituency to celebrities. In different ways, all are threatened by coal, and epitomize some combination of creditor and debtor relationship that is presently being worked through. They are in desperate need of an alternative socio-economic and ecological model, one that moves from Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) to Not On Planet Earth (NOPE) politics. If big-picture advocacy strategies ever emerge from climate debt advocacy, this area serves as a potentially useful methodological guide and even a possible ‘next Yasuní’ pilot to explore appropriate forms of alliance-building and solidaristic support.


Trump’s walk-out from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 is one catalyst from which to proceed, because it raised the question of climate debt faced by the US now that the Paris Climate Agreement protections against such liabilities no longer offer protection to US polluters. One of the most important opportunities to begin this long-overdue debate in the US is the lawsuit filed on behalf of 21 ‘climate kids’ who argue that the US government owes a generational debt, to protect future lives from climate chaos. The same principle can be extended from the terrain of time to that of space: the US owes a climate debt to victims of climate change, in places as diverse as post-hurricane Houston and Miami (which are partially being paid with state funding assistance, albeit with unsurprising race and class biases initially taught in 2005 by the Hurricane Katrina clean-up and 2012 by Hurricane Sandy) to Yasuní to northern KwaZulu-Natal.


In a context in which all verities are upended – not only by climate change but by Trump himself – new alliances can be forged. Fresh demands to repay the climate debt have surprising potential. Supporters would logically range from liberals and even neo-liberals – in the ecological modernization tradition – who agree with the ‘polluter pays’ logic, to radicals in the climate movements who argue that such debt repayment is a central component of the broader notion of climate justice. The next challenge, once political strategies are reformulated and once the climate debt is recognised, is how the next effort along these lines can be un-sabotaged. In direct contrast to ways Yasuní suffered from elite takeover, these would be principles required to make climate debt a much more strategically powerful approach using the principles of climate justice:


  • reject carbon markets as a payment mechanism;

  • before any elite deal-making commences, a mass support movement is needed in the Global North entailing people-people and people-nature solidarity;

  • until global balance of forces changes, expect the UN and its programmes to continue providing climate ‘solutions’ that are not useful;

  • bottom-up mobilisations can ultimately compel Northern people and then their governments (via corporate taxes) to pay Yasunízation grants;

  • such grants should be framed as ‘climate debt downpayments’, directed not just to leaving fossil fuels underground, but also to compensating ‘loss & damage’: climate-related financial burdens of local people (e.g. the Basic Income Grant);

  • new red-green alliances are vital to ensure not just conservation but also that social goals are met – ideally with community-labour-ecology projects;

  • since all elites remain committed to business as usual, red-green alliances would attempt to avoid the South-v-North ideology but instead focus on struggles between Global South and Global North;

  • illusions about supposed the merits of BRICS or non-Western corporate extraction should be avoided, as some of the BRICS have a climate debt to their people and especially their regions; and

  • Yasuní’s best lessons are bottom-up and solidaristic, whereas sabotage comes top-down in the spirit of atomising capitalism.


The challenge is the identification of follow-up cases. In northern KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, one has emerged since 2014, incorporating increasingly militant organising by community activists and conservationists during a period of El Nino drought amplified by climate change. The former have organic eco-feminist orientations, and survived apartheid forced removals as well as patriarchal traditional rule; the latter defend the legacy of Player’s white rhino rescue operation in Africa’s oldest nature reserve, fusing strong consciousness-raising, legal and solidarity-forging capacities.


At the confluence of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Wilderness Area, the Somkhele community to the park’s east and the Fuleni community to the south, can be found one of the region’s richest seams of anthracite coal. Much of it is of high quality and used in metallurgical production across the world, but approximately 12 percent is from discard and used for thermal coal combustion in energy generation. Since 2007, a major open-cast mining operation has been operating in Somkhele under the name Tendele, initially owned by the Petmin corporation of Johannesburg but in 2017 transferred to a Johannesburg venture capital firm, Capitalworks Investment Partners, which purchased Petmin outright and delisted it from the local stock market.


Petmin itself was a roller-coaster mining house in terms of share value, like most fossil fuel corporations in an era of commodity ‘super-cycle’ rises and crashes. Petmin’s price on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange fell from a peak of R510/share in 2008 to R150/share in 2009, rose back to R330/share in 2012 and then crashed to as low as R107 in 2016, in spite of huge recent increases in coal output. The secret to a 70 percent production increase in 2015 was Petmin’s discovery of an aquifer in the Somkhele water table at a time of extreme drought, which provided more water with which to wash coal. On BusinessDay TV (BDTV) in March 2016, Petmin official Bradley Doig (BD) remarked,


BD: … we found a lot of underground water in the vicinity of our mine so we’re in a very fortunate position right now that we have sufficient water available to run all three plants at maximum capacity to the end of this calendar year.

   BDTV: Is this something that you should do?

   BD: Yes, we believe it’s necessary. The market is there for our product, we have the water available, and obviously we’re still anticipating rainfall … but assuming it does not rain at all, we still have sufficient water for 12 months.


At that point, the price of export coal was recovering from a crash: from a 2008 high of $170/tonne to a 2015 low of $45/tonne, rising to $80/tonne by 2017. But because Petmin’s speculation in Canadian pig iron production ended up as a write-off, it was vulnerable to takeover. In 2016 the parent company recorded only a R11 million profit (less than $850 000) to share, compared to R125 million in 2015. The firm’s main shareholders – Investec, Old Mutual, Barclays Bank, Afena Capital and RECM – ignored a May 2017 activist appeal to halt coal extraction and instead sold Petmin to Capitalworks Investment Partners (Bloomberg 2017), a highly speculative oil/gas/carbon-based investment fund that “seeks to exit its investments within three to five years,” and hence will encourage Tendele mine manager Jarmi Steyn to maximise extraction (50/50 2017).


Opposing Tendele coal mining are community activists in Somkehele as well as an impressive group of professional supporters, along with solidarity activists from other oppressed communities. There is also potential for international awareness that includes celebrity endorsements and a crowd-sourcing strategy. Early on, Tendele’s operators dug out graves of Somkhele residents’ ancestors to access the rich anthracite. In doing so, the firm removed the bones without, as angry residents charge, requiting the long-rested spirits of the dead, in violation of sacred traditional protocol. Hundreds of people removed from their land around Tendele’s Somkhele operations were also abandoned by their local traditional ‘nkosis’ (ethnic chiefs) and elected leaders. Bought-off chiefs and politicians decided to side with the Johannesburg firm, thus permitting the rapid pollution of nearby water, land and air (Bond and ka-Manzi 2015).


In this kind of setting, it is important – though not always obvious – to explicitly draw out the linkss between fossil fuels, climate change (as experienced locally) and the divergent benefits and costs derived from these factors. Tendele’s anthracite production includes 350 000 tonnes of coal from discard used in thermal energy generation. As the firm’s website confirms, “low volatile, high-ash energy coal is exported to various markets around the world and is primarily used in the cement and low-volatile power station markets” (Tendele 2017, Overendstudio 2015). The firm’s so-called “Competent Person’s Report” on Tendele Coal Assets does not mention climate change and the associated write-down of coal assets (Overendstudio 2015).


As a result of ignoring these impacts, rising social unrest has included critique of Tendele’s devastating environmental footprint. In September 2017, for example, the lead anti-coal campaigner of the NGO groundWork, Robby Mokgalaka, told a national television audience in a documentary (50/50 2017), “That ecological debt is not being measured. It’s not being assessed properly.” (Indeed, groundWork has joined two other NGOs – Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights – to forge path-breaking legal challenges to coal-fired power-plants on grounds of climate abuse in Environmental Impact Assessments, so filing climate debt lawsuits is a logical next step to be taken.) One other interviewee, Nelisiwe Mchunu, complained, “now nothing grows because of Tendele Coal Mine.” Mchunu pointed to toxic coal dust from blasting and to the mining company’s diversion of 750 000 litres of water from the iMfolozi River, a feeder stream into which her community has depended for generations. “They have taken our water. We don’t have water to water our crops. We now use bath water to water our crops. We don’t even have streams to fetch water from. The stream has been cordoned off and it now belongs to the mine, and if you dare go in then the police will arrest you” (50/50 2017).


The documentary featured evidence of extreme climate change in the area, as well as adverse local environmental, health, economic and political effects of mining at the Tendele anthracite coal mine. Indeed although further research remains to be pursued in the area, Tendele’s impacts feature strongly amongst the ten typical socio-ecological debts associated with non-renewable resource extraction:


  • ecological: degradation and pollution of land, air,water

  • socio-psychological: displacement, gendered violence

  • labour and health: migrancy, workplace safety, disease

  • spiritual/traditional: sacred sites, common spaces

  • political (local, national): elite formation, ‘state capture’ of regulators

  • geo-political: imperialism and sub-imperialism

  • mal-developmental: ‘Dutch Disease’ economy skew

  • financial: Illicit (and Licit) Financial Flows

  • ecological-economic: ‘natural capital’ wealth depletion

  • climatic: fossil fuel emissions (including for smelting)


Mchunu is part of the Women in Mining (WoMin) network of activists fighting mining houses. In a 2015 statement, “Women Stand their Ground against Big Coal,” the group reflected on links between the local and global:


Climate change impacts are felt most intensively by women because of patriarchal role allocations and unequal control over natural resources in families, communities and economies. Peasant women in Africa will carry the brunt of climate change effects because of their responsibilities for provisioning between 60-80 percent of food consumed by rural households, the collection of safe drinking water, and the care of sick household members.

   “Coal kills. It has destroyed our land, our lives and our community.” These are the words of a woman member of the Somkhele community in KwaZulu-Natal who has endured devastating environmental and social effects of coal mining over the last decade. Just a few miles west, communities in Fuleni are fighting Ibutho Coal, a shadowy firm linked to BHP Billiton and Glencore – the world’s largest mining house and commodity trader – which aims to mine coal on the southern boundary of the iMfolozi Wilderness Area.

   Thousands of local residents in Fuleni will be relocated (for the second time in a generation) to make way for the mine in an area already suffering more than a year of deep drought. Thanks to increased burning of coal and other fossil fuels, such conditions are now more commonplace, as climate change takes hold across the world. South Africa is both victim and villain, on a grand scale, and this is just one of many sites where the class, race and gender character of the winners and losers are blatantly obvious. (WoMin 2015)


Although leaving the coal underground is the primary objective of all these activists, there has not yet been a concerted strategy to ‘Yasuníze’ – especially to introduce the climate debt component – the struggle of the Somkhele and Fuleni residents and allied conservationists (especially the Global Environmental Trust that Player’s work inspired). However, if there is such an expansion of the existing critique of socio-environmental justice that can be levelled at Tendele, it will also be vital to link the production of coal – with all the problems it causes – to its consumption. Richards Bay has the world’s largest export coal terminal, with 77 million tonnes sent to India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Turkey and Europe in 2016 (Asia takes 77 percent and the European Union 12 percent). Allies there who can oppose coal imports from South Africa will logically be sought, and to the extent that a case for targeted climate debt payment can be made, it should rapidly extend to the wide variety of anti-coal struggles being conducted by the Mining Affected Communities United in Action, whose members fight mining houses across a vast arc of coal extraction from KwaZulu-Natal in the east through Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces. The urgency of their battles cannot be overstated, since they are in the target range for extraction and export of 18 billion tonnes of coal, as a result of proposed new rail and mining infrastructure costing $50 billion. It is the first of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission’s Strategic Integrated Projects in the South African National Planning Commission (2011) National Development Plan.


Conclusion: climate debt within KwaZulu-Natal community and conservation campaigns


In the process of debating and potentially implementing a climate debt strategy in South Africa, it will be vital to learn lessons from not only Ecuador but also Namibia. The Yasuní and Otjivero experiences combine, respectively, environmental and social protections through payment of the climate debt:


  • Ecological payments to Yasuní-type communities (such as iMfolozi’s defenders) which protect climate-sensitive areas from exploitation or degradation is one way that Southern countries’ governments and directly-affected peoples can justify “leaving the oil under the soil, coal in the hole, tar-sand in the land, and fracking shale gas under the grass” (so long as such payments are not channelled through carbon markets and do not entail carbon offsets representing a “privatisation of the air” strategy).


  • Likewise, social payments to Otjivero-type communities featuring direct compensation to climate change victims may be optimal across Africa (e.g. in drought-affected sites such as Fuleni and Somkhele), in the form of universal albeit geographically-specific Basic Income Grant payments – an especially sensible strategy where it can be demonstrated that individual and households benefit with minimal administrative drainage (i.e., ensuring that funds do not leak into undemocratic states, to NGOs or to local elites).


These are the sorts of criteria that can promote Global North financial and political solidarity. However, what is crucial is emphasising the overdue (re)construction a global movement typically known as ‘Climate Justice.’ In South Africa, if this approach is increasingly discussed in Somkhele and Fuleni as well as with iMfolozi’s conservation advocates, the critique of carbon offsets will be important for three reasons:


  • past carbon offsetting and emissions trading practices in South Africa have been largely unsatisfactory (Bond et al 2009, Bond 2012a);


  • there is a real danger that a currently-proposed national carbon tax will become an offset market (Republic of South Africa National Treasury 2015), and that climate debt payments are deformed into emission markets (either suffering the fate of Yasuní in the formal UN REDD system – or merely becoming a guilt-assuaging technique for individuals who voluntarily offset); and


  • South African firms (and individuals in the top fifth of income earners) are typically just as high if not higher carbon emitters than their international counterparts, so climate justice requires that there be, within the geographic South, a distinction between the vast majority of Global South under-emitters and Global North over-emitters, such that the latter also pay their climate debt.


A coherent process of defining climate debt can unfold if solidarity from both local and global climate debtors is based upon common cause with the people (and environment) of sites such as northern KwaZulu-Natal. That level of person-to-person awareness of global-local socio-ecological processes is rare. (A popular film released in 2017, Thanks for the Rain, does so emotionally, as a poignant friendship emerges between a Norwegian filmmaker and climate-stressed Kenyan peasant, but at the expense of analytical rigour and olitical coherence.)


To generate that extent of solidarity will require, first, a full-fledged climate justice narrative emerging within the social movements at the grassroots, allowing the many dimensions of the climate debt to be explored in their complexity. In my view, the first stage in this is to establish a solidarity fund, such as “The Crowd Versus” in the case of campaigning against Ibutho Coal at Fuleni: This particular example taps into the ‘Crowd Versus’ (2016) network’s “crowdfunding platform for legal action against multinationals – and if necessary governments – that make their profits at the expense of people and nature. By collectively raising money for targeted legal action, the crowd can help the individual to withstand their disproportional power.”


The focus on financing lawsuits is one strategy, although it may be far more effective in the early stages to prioritise grassroots movement-building: organisational development, basic office infrastructure and the transport, food, cellphone airtime and other logistical inputs that every activist depends upon to gather support. Such support coming from climate debtor solidarity activists (not off-setters of their own pollution for reasons noted above) would be the basis for equalising the uneven development of financial resources that the global climate justice movement has suffered. The potential therein is enormous – if prerequisite processes unfold so that political clarity is achieved – for Global North climate debtors to pay their debt via movement-building and solidarity. The aim is for Tendele, Ibutho and any other operators in KwaZulu-Natal to be halted in their tracks, by increasingly militant and well-networked ‘Blockadia’ activists and their supporters.


Such a precedent, like the partially-successful Yasuní and Otjivero movements, would inspire further innovative strategies to combine local climate justice with international solidarity. These global-local solidarity strategies have been pioneered before in South Africa, in the victorious fights against apartheid from the 1950s-90s, and against Intellectual Property access barriers to AIDS medicines during the early 2000s (the latter raising life expectancy from 52 in 2004 to 64 a dozen years later as four million HIV+ South Africans gained access to free drugs that were once patented). Such moments of local protest calling forth internationalist anti-corporate activism are the kinds of inspirations that make the quest to pay the climate debt and leave fossil fuels unexploited not just a fantasy, but a strategy whose time has come.




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