It’s Time to Talk About Climate Reparations

How do we begin to give back what decades of fossil fuel polluters have taken away?

Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

By Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt, Hot Take

Future Human has partnered with Hot Take, a podcast hosted by Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt, to share exclusive climate coverage and conversations with key figures leading the fight for human survival.

Maxine Burkett, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, coined the term in a paper she wrote on the subject in 2009. In a nutshell, “climate reparations” translates the understanding of climate change as a monumental injustice that needs to be addressed into law and policy.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, a lawyer and the former North America director of 350.org, worked one of the nonprofits that supported the first case that got folks talking about climate reparations — Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, in which the residents of Kivalina, Alaska attempted to hold Exxon accountable for its role in destroying their home.

Here, Toles O’Laughlin shares more about the past, present, and future of climate reparations, exactly what the Global North owes the Global South, and what’s owed to people of color in the Global North. Because if you recalculate global debt to account for all that was stolen through colonialism and slavery, it dramatically changes what is owed — and to whom.

The fact that debt is not calculated to account for the generations of people’s lives stolen, their ways of life outlawed and destroyed, the ecosystems wrecked, says a lot about what is valued. It’s time to fix that. In fact, it’s too late not to.

Listen to the episode:

Amy Westervelt: So let’s start with, really basically, what is climate reparations — what does that mean?

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Just explain it to me like I’m six.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: So climate reparations is a term that was coined by Maxine Burkett, who is an attorney and a practitioner, and a teacher in Hawaii.

She coined this term by writing a law review about what government could do to respond to climate harm, and assess all the harm that has been caused by so many groups and sanctioned by the government — and taxed double on it as well.

So really wrestling with all this major pollution and the fact that it didn’t just rob people of their actual goods, but of the vision of a future where we wouldn’t be fighting climate change.

She did this in a really incredible article in 2009, which came on the heels of a really great piece of litigation. I worked at Center for Race, Poverty, and Environment in 2009. The case that they had just finished was a massive effort led by a community of Alaskans in Kivalina — the Exxon Mobil v. Kivalina case in 2008.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: And what is that?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: So this case was about a community that could prove that their island landmass and their permanent sea ice was melting and that it was caused by climate change. So they sued Exxon Mobil — and got $89 million. Did they get that in real life? No, because Exxon fought and fought and fought them and appealed until they didn’t have to do anything about that.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: (Remember that the next time Exxon tries to pretend like they’re a climate organization on Twitter.)

Amy Westervelt: It’s kind of the precursor to all the climate liability cases happening now, right?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Yeah! And Ruth Hopkins, amazing human being. She is the daughter of the woman who was involved in that litigation, along with Luke Cole and a lot of other really great, smart people who recognize [climate reparations] is real. And we had to come up with a way to talk about harm when it feels like it’s everywhere, but we know it’s from something specific.

In 2017, a couple of climate groups sort of bandied about the words “climate reparations” because reparations themselves have come in and out of fashion as people get a little woke — and then get scared. And so as reparations have come up, progressive people have been trying to figure out how they fit in. Because the work of environmentalism has avoided talking about people, racism, and sexism, and all those -isms that really make that money.

Given that a lot of this term has come and gone in a global context, it’s often described as loss and damage. And people think about it in terms of, how do you move money to people who will be forced to be climate refugees, who have to get up and leave because everything’s on fire?

So the folks who are facing that imminently, who are terrified of the truth, which is that their homelands are not safe and they will be people without land — are thinking about whose job it is to pay for it when the communities that are going to suffer first and worst.

They didn’t make those deals [to burn fossil fuels], didn’t get any benefits of it, weren’t asked, and frankly, shouldn’t be made to pay to relocate. That loss and damage conversation has been happening in the UN. It’s been happening at all of the COPs [UN climate change conferences]. Last year the Gulf South Center for Law and Policy held a — well, you know, it’s the South, so they do a lot of whiskey-related events — a whiskey and reparations event and a bunch of people came to talk about it.

It was one of those things that that made folks say: Right. So reparations is coming back. In the U.S. it has gone nowhere. Loss and damage hasn’t gone anywhere. But nobody will get the U.S. to admit that it’s been a bad partner. And there are internal situations that have to be dealt with. So Black reparations is just looking at the fact that the concentration of wealth on behalf of people who’ve made money hurting all of us is exactly corollary to the distribution of impacts, health impacts, loss of much shorter life income.

All of that stuff is connected. So climate reparations is really just trying to figure out how do you connect these twin harms and how do you add that to the conversation around racialized harm and racialized capital? There is not a single thing that exists in America that isn’t built on Black people’s bodies or Indigenous people’s suffering and relocation.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, the way that I usually explain climate reparations to people is: You fuck it up, you clean it up, right?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Yes. That’s exactly what it is. Right. Exactly.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: When you get into a car accident, if you are at fault, you have to pay for the other person’s repairs, and that’s kind of what climate reparations is, right?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: That’s right. It’s slow. The U.S. has its problems. The U.S. has racism, has relocation. It has tons of money being made on the backs of human beings who did not ask to be put in situations where their lives will be shortened by everything. But the U.S. itself is not the only container for this. England rivals it — having had a deeper hand in this for a longer period of time. Think about any number of island nations, including the British Virgin Islands, which are suddenly being given back to the people that live there just in time for them to get wiped out.

So if we would like a real conversation about climate reparations, we would be asking, why is the Crown returning all of this stuff just in time for people to get wiped out instead of offering them the opportunity to be able to move when they’re going to have the house? Because one in four people will become a climate refugee in our lifetime.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: This is a good time to remember the full names of some of these companies like Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum.

Amy Westervelt: Almost every time oil companies talk about this stuff and also this whole batch of tech pros in the climate space, they talk about the “energy poverty problem.” [That] you can’t act on climate now because that will make it so hard for developing countries to get a certain quality of life that you need. They will make this argument that it’s basically racist to not let India have coal or to not let Africa have coal when the reality is rich countries could just pay for those countries to transition to a cleaner energy. There is nothing stopping them from doing that. And the idea that somehow, it is bad for those countries to try to act on climate globally is a neat little rhetorical trick that they play.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Right. It doesn’t take into consideration that almost every one of the places that you just mentioned is actually fighting coal. Yeah, like decolonize.

So many different parts of India and Asia and Africa are in the middle of the fight of their lives, because every time we’ve ever had a win in the U.S., we’re like, yeah, we’ve killed coal. If we close our eyes and pretend that industry hasn’t moved offshore to an entirely different place without the benefit of our information of the health impacts, our resources to relocate people in government that, well, seven minutes ago we might have said have looser enforcement capacity.

I think we’re in a moment where we’re not feeling so smug about what our government can do. But we used to think, oh, it’s a jungle out there, quite literally — it’s nonsense that we can say and folks don’t want to have their water polluted or their air polluted or to be forced into industries where you could lose a limb and get black lung.

We have lots of proof here in the U.S. that people who give you black lung leave you to die in a hospital and don’t pay for your repair, or your community, if they even cover your funeral. One of the things that climate reparations could and should really focus on doing is resolving that question around coal because we’re going to be there with oil and gas and all the fossil fuel until we get rid of it.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: I think that over the past couple of years, the climate movement has gotten more comfortable talking about racism and the intersections with misogyny and white supremacy and all of these other problems. Not where it needs to be, but I get trolled when I talk about it a lot less, to be honest. So I see an improvement. It feels like it’s becoming more mainstream to talk about it as this intersectional, holistic issue. And as a result of that, I’m seeing a lot of people come around to the idea of climate reparations and thinking that they invented it.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Because in the U.S. it runs up against white supremacist culture, maintenance, and the structure of philanthropy. So to call for climate reparations is to call into question the way our government operates, whether or not we should have free-market capitalism that allows people to plunder you to death. And so the idea that we can call for climate reparations is really a wholesale review of what the economy is made of.

We have to talk about treaty rights. We have to talk about the Green New Deal with sincerity. One of my favorite things about this moment of climate reparations, the remix, is the idea that we’re bringing it back at a time when the Green New Deal provides a roadmap for what it could do. It feels like a lot to me, like the teeth that could make a Green New Deal work because it’s a lot of great ideas about moving capital and people.

But if we don’t stop folks from making money, seize their assets so they don’t leave sick and dying people that they hurt on the sidewalk to die in a climate-related event, then we have some capital to make the Green New Deal happen that doesn’t just come from taxation credits and moving around the banking until it looks funny and everybody forgets to count. So I do think that this is a moment where that framework with the enforcement capacity of making polluters pay, stopping them at the door, frisking them for their assets, and then returning them back to the people they harmed.

I think the two things need each other. And that’s some of the boldness in terms of coming out. Or I would say is as one of those people, part of the reason why it’s more comfortable is because there are Black women yelling it — there are Black women calling for it, and building programs around it, and connecting the dots on it. And whether we’re talking about NAACP Climate and trying to figure out how to deal with climate finance. So we act for environmental justice, thinking through how do we connect the dots not just on the harm, but to how we got here into a narrative Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy on this based on how do we move this to connect the ecofeminist in Africa that’s working on Lake Chad? So the African Americans living in the Global South, inside the U.S., inside the north, that are struggling in Louisiana and Texas, where we do well in Appalachia and West Virginia, we are not in a unique moment.

We’re just in a place where there’s time for real alignment. And it has been a real pleasure of mine over the last two years to connect all of those dots, connect all of those people and then say, hey, wait a minute, there are Indigenous communities fighting for a land back. And guess what falls under the category of climate reparations? Land back.

I actually think in this moment where people are super focused about getting a new administration, overcoming the revolution, pushing for a climate. There’s a real opportunity to reconnect what’s happening in the U.S. to what’s happening in the Global South and the rest of the world and start building some Global South leadership that depends on the U.S. and bidding where it’s made mistakes. Climate reparations feels like a great way to do that. One of the things that’s really cool about it, Sonia Kolinsky, who has worked a lot with Maxine Burkett that’s thought about different kinds of reparations, Sandy Darity and Culburra, tons of other people have also thought about this. But the idea is generally that the first thing you’ve got to do is admit you broke something. You have to say you’re sorry. And then a second thing is you deal with people about what they need to get better and then you give it to them. And they are a part of a conversation about being brought back to wholeness or being moved or given the tools to adapt and build a different kind of housing so you could stay in your homeland.

Like these are conversations we can’t get in if the U.S. is still a bastard that can’t get involved in any conversations about climate because we’re still reeling from the last four years of awful.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Right. But can you say more about the “you need to say you’re sorry first”? Like why isn’t that…

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: The U.S. has been reluctant to do that because it usually means liability. My grandfather’s brother was the youngest person executed by the state of South Carolina. And it took so many years and a lot of dead people for them to apologize and say, “Yeah, sorry. So your grandpa’s brother was a kid. He couldn’t have lifted the implement and everyone in the town at the time knew it wasn’t him. We just wanted to execute a Black boy and we just did it.” I have siblings who have the same eyes.

It took another generation of people and forcing the government to apologize 70 years later, after almost all those people were dead, they said, “Oh, yeah, we totally did that.”

Because if they did it in the lifetime of the people that they harm, they would have to pay for it, given that the bill came due for the harm. Right? As Trump was being installed, the state said we don’t have to pay that. You know why? Because you won’t ever get this president if we take it to the highest court to respond to you. So he just walked off. And so this has happened to my family, but it’s also happened to communities dealing with black lung and Appalachia who were supposed to get the black lung fund.

That’s why we need to own up to an apology because it makes liability. It means you have to assess the harm that you’ve done to other people and engage them about resolving it. So if we don’t have acknowledgment come first, restitution and satisfaction will never come.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Tamara, if you could design the perfect climate reparations policy, like, what would it look like?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: So I actually think that the best-case scenario for climate reparations would be that we start to recognize that communities have to be dealt with in terms of the Green New Deal, like they are beneficiaries, like they are a series of folks who have been taken for hundreds of years of a ride they never signed up for. And we start looking at the harm to communities.

We look really closely at all the folks who’ve gotten all this fossil fuel money in the last couple of bailouts. We retract all of it. So first we take our money back from them.

Then we go after them through climate liability lawsuits to the government, no longer giving them subsidies, and cut off the faucet so we can stop spending good money after bad. And after we’ve done that, we put all that in a fund that, unlike the blackland, actually does respond to people who need to be to be rehoused, need to be moved to different communities, need to look for higher ground because maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in 10 years, they’re not going to have a place to live if they’re sunny day flooding. I really love how we put such friendly names on horrifying things that will destroy you.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: It’s like a positive feedback loop right? Yes, that actually sounds good.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: So if you’re looking for higher ground right now and you aren’t independently wealthy and you can move to higher ground, I think you should be really smart about setting up a fund for people to be able to move to a place of their choice where resources to risk their lives. Now, that’s just happening at the community level. The Green New Deal has tons of ways that shows up in affordable housing and better transportation and community design and retraining for people. But at the same time, the U.S. has been a bad actor and expelled a bunch of things into the rest of the atmosphere, along with other bad actors globally.

And they have to think about what the pool of funds are for exactly what Amy mentioned, for people who are having to who are being chastised for getting an air conditioner and getting a car instead of a bicycle, if that’s what they choose because we’re not making the technology available.

So it’d be super great if we flattened all the licenses by paying for them so people get what they do so that I could move into better tech without having to pay the price tag for it.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Yeah, exactly. And also some of those places you got to get an air conditioner because it’s gotten too hot to live. Yeah, it’s gotten too hot to live because of the actions of, you know, companies and governments in the Global North.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: And I think globally it would look like forgiveness of debt, pick a country, pay global debt. Like anybody who has been through the global debt is probably also first and worst to suffer in terms of climate change. So closing that so people will have to make a choice between fleeing and living is really important.

I also think it would be really, really great to start looking at the maps across geographies and pulling down all the walls because people are going to have to relocate. And as nation-states try to figure out who they want to save and who they literally are going to let die, we shouldn’t be building infrastructure to support that even in a hyper-militarized moment like the one we’re in.

So I do think that some of this has to happen in the U.S. A bunch of it is going to have to happen through states and municipalities suing the government and these perpetrators for bringing us here. But then the rest of it has to happen at the government, a government level from tribes and Indigenous communities to U.S. and Asia, U.S. and Europe, and everywhere. There’s a lot of transactions to be done and undone and none of it happens if we keep handing off all of our money to people who hate us and are trying to kill us. Yet coal, oil, and gas, if you’re out there, I’m talking to you.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: But also the way I understand climate reparations is like if you did reparations for slavery and colonialism, you might deal with this already. Right? It’s kind of like the Global North becomes the debtors, right? And they are indebted to Africa and to Asia and the places that they stole from. And, you know, what would that look like?

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: Yeah, part of why this means so much to me as a person who shows up in a Black woman’s body, is that all the wealth that there is comes from Africa. Like I would be in West Africa, cold chillin’ if it wasn’t for — so all of us who have come to here through so many transactions that we were neither given accountability agency or any remuneration for, like the wealth of this country is in our bodies.

There, and in and in the lost opportunity, whether it’s genetic or epigenetic, which means not just this generation, but this one and everyone that could come through your body with the trauma that you’ve experienced, like just and answering that debt in a form of reparations would in fact deal with the fact that you don’t live where you live by accident.

Your zip code in terms of your health by accident. The racial covenants that have decided whether relatives even talk to you about communities that you live in, all of that stuff is wrapped into it. So the idea that we could do reparations without climate is silly. And to do climate without reparations is intentional blindness.

Mary Annaïse Heglar: Hopefully the media will learn a lot and learn how to actually talk about climate reparations. That’s the goal.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin: I’m just so glad that you asked these questions and you wanted to have this chat because I do think it’s about to blow up and go big time. It’s the perfect time.

Print and radio reporter. Founder, Critical Frequency. Host/reporter Drilled, co-host Hot Take and Labor. For more mom stuff: podlink.to/labor

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