Across the world, youth took part in climate strikes last week calling for climate reparations. The Frontline explores the power of reparations—and how the global climate strike movement is centering the needs of the most affected people and areas.
On Friday, thousands of youth took to the streets. From Berlin to Cape Town, climate activists skipped school to demand climate reparations from their leaders. Though Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg started the climate strike movement through Fridays for Future back in 2018, the movement is now led by youth from around the world.
Youth among the most affected people and areas, also known as MAPA, are (rightfully) taking a front seat. The climate strike’s theme of climate reparations addresses the centuries of harm by former colonial powers in the Global North to the most vulnerable communities in the Global South still repairing the trauma from that colonization. The youth are making it clear that the countries most responsible for the climate crisis need to own up to their actions (or lack thereof). Not all youth could strike as school is a privilege for many and not every country honors free speech, but all youth play a role in this global movement.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re sick of injustice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. This year’s climate strikes feel especially powerful given the increased urgency around the climate crisis. Scientists are making it more and more clear that climate change is here and we need to act now. If we want to prevent our existing inequalities from worsening, climate reparations need to be a part of the global climate response.
The idea of climate reparations dates back decades. Discussions around climate reparations started back in the 1990s when Latin American communities were raising demands around “ecological debt,” said Keston Perry, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Williams College who researches the economics of climate change.
Since then, more and more activists and academics are using the term, but climate reparations remain on the fringe of climate policy as leaders in the Global North refuse to pay countries in the Global South what they need to withstand brutal climate impacts and recover from the damage they’re already facing.
For those who are confused, climate reparations is a specific form of reparations, which are a form of compensation for historical abuse. Gemany has created reparations funds for Russian Jewish people who survived the Nazis. In the U.S., Evanston, Illinois, is creating its own reparations system for the city’s Black residents who are now living with the legacy of segregation.
Climate reparations, however, are more global in scope. It involves countries whose emissions created the climate crisis compensating the countries most immediately and intensely feeling the effects of a hotter planet. The most vulnerable countries did the least to bring us to this precipice, and yet they’ve been left to foot the bill of our planet’s destruction.
And that’s why thousands of youth were rallying in the streets last week. They want global action to address this inequality. In 2009, the world’s richest nations (including the U.S.) agreed to give $100 billion a year to countries that need to mitigate and adapt to climate change but can’t afford to. However, 2020 came and went without countries meeting that goal. In fact, the U.S. only approved $1 billion in international climate finance this year.
“We have to look at climate change as not a problem that started today but one that has come from a colonial past to which many countries in the Global North do not want to confess and admit to.”
These pledges and dollar amounts don’t even account for the centuries of exploitation that have left the Global South so vulnerable to climate change in the first place. The way Perry sees it, the failed $100 billion annual pledge is nowhere near enough to what this crisis demands. “It’s insufficient,” he said. “It does not meet community needs.”
“We’re talking about these colonial histories that have contributed to the climate change problem,” Perry went on. “We’re talking about issues of how countries are continually exploited by Global North corporations.”
That’s where climate reparations come in. They would go beyond the framework set forth in these climate finance agreements. As Perry described, climate reparations specifically targets colonial powers in an attempt to create justice because climate change is a symptom of the same forces that made colonization, slavery, and the ongoing exploitatoin of people and land possible.
“We have to look at climate change as not a problem that started today but one that has come from a colonial past to which many countries in the Global North do not want to confess and admit to,” Perry said.
Climate strikers are trying to draw attention to this history and its present-day impacts. Increased public awareness of the climate crisis would mean success, said Chukwuma Paul, a 23-year-old climate striker from Kigali, Rwanda. He, himself, wasn’t paying much attention to the changing planet until he began to feel the impacts at home.
“It doesn’t need to happen to you for you to take action,” Paul said. “Look at those who are impacted. We are all part of the global human community. We take action because it’s wrong. We take action because the Global North has done something historically.”
These actions look different in various parts of the world. In Kenya, Eric Njuguna, a climate justice organizer with Fridays for Future Kenya, has to organize marches in “less impactful spaces,” he said, to ensure the actions don’t alarm law enforcement. He also can’t organize school walkouts or formal strikes because “we can’t afford to skip school,” he explained. This strategy has sometimes made Njuguna feel excluded from the movement, but he hopes that white allies can hold their elected officials accountable in Europe and North America.
The idea to focus on reparations came from youth among the most affected people and areas, Njuguna said. After all, many of these youth know firsthand the consequences of inadequate financial support for climate change. Njuguna is seeing rising temperatures challenge his community’s water systems.
In San Carlos De Guaroa, Colombia, a rural community in the center of the country, 15-year-old Juan Amaya is seeing protected areas go toward development projects, leaving rivers contaminated. He can literally feel the air around him heating up. After school, he joined in a local protest he helped organize—to fight for the land, people, and reparations.
“It’s about responsibility,” Amaya said in Spanish. “Let’s not forget that the Global North has caused climate change through its colonialism.”
The existing inequalities in our world may only deepen without a formal reparations process put in place. The youth won’t stand for it—but they need presidents and prime ministers to listen up. Time is running out.