At The Expense Of The Poor

Climate Expropriation–a Political Question

Farooque Chowdhury

Climate is being expropriated by the rich and the powerful while the poor people are paying with their life. This fact is also evident in the case of rich and poor countries—the rich countries gain while the poor countries suffer. The issue is a political question related to struggle for democracy.

With its carbon footprint from 1990 to 2014, a recent study finds, the US caused nearly $2 trillion in damages to other countries.

The colossal amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) released by the US over the period cited above has led to disasters and damages resulting in $1.9 trillion in lost income globally, found the recent study.

The study report was published in the journal Climatic Change on July 12, 2022 (Callahan, C.W., Mankin, J.S. “National attribution of historical climate damages”, Climatic Change 172, 40 (2022).

It’s not strange that the study report has been mostly ignored by the MSM. But, it’s strange that the report has also been ignored by a section of the outlets including on-line journal, e-magazine, etc. that claim to be alternative to the MSM, that claim to be standing for climate, people and the poor.

GHG emissions from high-emitting countries, said the study report, have caused substantial economic losses in low-income, tropical parts of the world and economic gains in high-income, midlatitude regions.

Discourse on climate liability is narrow due to lack of scientific evidence of causal linkages between countries’ emissions and its impact.

The report said: Global income changes attributable to the US and China’s emissions over 1990–2014 each exceed US $1.8 trillion in both losses and benefits; losses and benefits induced by Russia, India, and Brazil each individually exceed US $500 billion. The US $6 trillion in cumulative losses attributable to these five countries is comparable both to some 14% of annual world GDP and to the economic losses associated with warming the planet to 2°C rather than 1.5°C.

The study finds: The most northerly countries are reaping tangible benefits from climate change; and the disproportionate harm befalling poorer and warmer countries is likely even more skewed. When emissions created by international trade are taken into account the US is placed even more starkly in the lead regarding climate-induced damages, responsible for 18%.

In poor and poorer countries, the impact of climate expropriation is deadly: hundreds die, thousands turn destitute and migrants, millions face uncertainty in terms of livelihood, shelter, health and education; and it’s the poor, the most vulnerable segment of society that suffers the most.

Large emitters, the report said, make disproportionate contributions to climate damages. The top 10 most damaging countries are responsible for more than 67% of losses and 70% of benefits. The US contributes the most, responsible for 16.5% of losses and 18% of benefits, followed by China, responsible for 15.8% of losses and 16.8% of benefits; every other country individually contributes less than 10%.

Under consumption-based accounting attributable damages increase by 1.5% for the US, increase by 10–20% for some European countries, and decrease by 15% for Russia and 9% for China, expanding the gap in responsibility between the US and all other countries, said the report.

The report said: Emissions released early in the twentieth century may have more severe effects because of the longer time period over which the growth effects of such emissions accumulate; at the same time, carbon sinks are stronger at lower emissions levels and the growth effects of warming are milder when baseline temperatures are cooler, so the opposite could be true.

Developing countries’ attributable damages and benefits, according to the report, only increase modestly while many countries in Europe experience > 400% increases, given their large shares of pre-1990 emissions.

It said: Countries that lose income are warmer and poorer than the global average, generally located in the tropics; countries that gain income are cooler and wealthier than the global average, generally located in the midlatitudes; and global warming to date has amplified, and will continue to amplify, this extant pattern of global economic inequality.

The study report said: The results provide an additional dimension to this globally unequal pattern: The cool, relatively wealthy countries that have gained from anthropogenic warming are also those that (1) have emitted the most and (2) caused the most damage to other countries from their emissions. Nearly all the high-emitting nations in North America and Eurasia are in the top two GDP per capita income quintiles over 1990–2014, though China, India, and Indonesia are exceptions. These top several income quintiles have caused income losses in the poorest two quintiles, while they have caused income gains for themselves that exceed those losses in magnitude.

It said: Countries in the lowest income quintile, primarily in Africa and central and south Asia, have caused nearly zero effects on other countries while suffering the greatest disadvantages from the emissions of larger economies.

The report said: The study results are consistent with previous work that shows increases in global inequality from historical warming. The study findings emphasise: The culpability for warming rests primarily with a handful of major emitters, and that this warming has resulted in the emitters’ enrichment at the expense of the poorest people in the world.

The anthropogenic warming, the report said, constitutes a substantial international wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy.

The report said: These harms can be assigned to individual emitters in a way that rigorously accounts for the compounding uncertainties at each step of the causal chain from emissions to local impact.

It notes that the study approach can be generalised to other actors including individual firms, or to other harms, such as the farmers’ economic losses. These results contribute to resolving a major obstacle to climate liability efforts and advance critical discussions.

The report said: Quantifying which nations are culpable for the economic impacts of anthropogenic warming is central to informing climate litigation and restitution claims for climate damages. For countries seeking legal redress, the magnitude of economic losses from warming attributable to individual emitters is not known, undermining their standing for climate liability claims. Uncertainties compound at each step from emissions to GHG concentrations, GHG concentrations to global temperature changes, global temperature changes to country-level temperature changes, and country-level temperature changes to economic losses, providing emitters with plausible deniability for damage claims.

The study, claim the scientists, lifts the veil of deniability, and helps quantify each country’s culpability for historical temperature-driven income changes in every other country.

The scientists claim their “framework shows such linkages can be quantified”; and they can “process-trace exactly who has caused economic losses from their emissions, and how much.”

The study findings, the scientists claim, could provide a basis for poorer countries to sue for climate-related harms.

The study report said: Previous efforts have been hamstrung by a lack of scientific evidence linking individual carbon emitters to “the downstream impacts of warming.” These countries now will be able to take legal action. Such methods of placing blame for climate harms can also be applied to corporations.

Damages and thus potential liabilities, the report said, depend on when emissions accounting begins and on what emissions are considered. These choices are ultimately political.

The analysis provides a quantitative grounding to inform these political choices.

This year, another study (Beusch, L., Nauels, A., Gudmundsson, L. et al., “Responsibility of major emitters for country-level warming and extreme hot years”, Communications Earth & Environment, 3, 7, January 6, 2022, quantified contributions of the five largest emitters—China, US, EU-27, India, Russia—to project 2030 country-level warming and extreme hot years with respect to pre-industrial climate.

The study report said: The US is the largest per capita emitter, followed by Russia, China, EU-27, and India.

It said: The top five emitters are playing a major role in driving global and regional warming and are increasing the probability for extreme hot years.

“Recent studies”, said the study report, “have highlighted the relevance of assigning climate change responsibility to major emitters, in order to better quantify the contributions of individual countries to human-induced global warming and its consequences. This has gained importance with the bottom-up approach to mitigation that was introduced as part of the Paris Agreement”.

The issue was also found in many other studies.

A 2012-study (Wei T, Yang S, Moore JC, Shi P, Cui X, Duan Q, Xu B, Dai Y, Yuan W, Wei X et al (2012), “Developed and developing world responsibilities for historical climate change and CO2 mitigation”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (32) said: Negotiations on emission reduction among countries are increasingly fraught with difficulty, partly because of arguments about the responsibility for the ongoing temperature rise. Simulations with two earth-system models demonstrate that developed countries had contributed about 60-80%, developing countries about 20-40%, to the global temperature rise, upper ocean warming, and sea-ice reduction by 2005.

Seven years later, another study (Diffenbaugh NS, Burke M (2019), “Global warming has increased global economic inequality”, Proc Natl Acad Sci, 116(20) PMID: 31010922, PMCID: PMC6525504, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1816020116) said: Understanding the causes of economic inequality is critical for achieving equitable economic development.

The study found: Very high likelihood that anthropogenic climate forcing has increased economic inequality between countries.

As example, the study cited the following facts:

(1) Per capita GDP has been reduced 17-31% at the poorest four deciles of the population-weighted country-level per capita GDP distribution, yielding a ratio between the top and bottom deciles that is 25% larger than in a world without global warming.

(2) In addition to not sharing equally in the direct benefits of fossil fuel use, many poor countries have been significantly harmed by the warming arising from wealthy countries' energy consumption.

This climate-reality found in the above mentioned studies is climate plunder, and this plunder is nothing but expropriation of the climate. This expropriation goes on in addition to appropriation of surplus labor the world around; and entire global population pays the toll for capitals’ climate plunder.

The findings of the studies also help identify contradictions related to climate and the world capitalist system: climate-expropriating capital against people. Considering the issues, the studies cited above are significant as climate expropriation by capital is crime against humanity, and this should be in the programme for struggle for democracy.

Plaintiffs’ claim is an important part in this issue.

Rupert F. Stuart-Smith, et al (Stuart-Smith, R.F., Otto, F.E.L., Saad, A.I. et al, “Filling the evidentiary gap in climate litigation”, Nature Climate Change, 11, 651–655 (2021). found: Lawsuits concerning the impacts of climate change make causal claims about the effect of defendants’ GHG emissions on plaintiffs. Plaintiffs have sought, inter alia, compensation for climate-related losses and to compel governments to reduce their GHG emissions. So far, most of these claims have been unsuccessful.

The study assessed 73 lawsuits, and found the evidence submitted and referenced in these cases lags considerably behind the state-of-the-art in climate science, impeding causation claims.

The researchers’ conclusion: Greater appreciation and exploitation of existing methodologies in attribution science could address obstacles to causation and improve the prospects of litigation as a route to compensation for losses, regulatory action and emission reductions by defendants seeking to limit legal liability.

So, comes the question of climate justice, an issue in discussion and demand since long.

The study by David Schlosberg and Lisette B. Collins (“From environmental to climate justice: climate change and the discourse of environmental justice”, February 22, 2014, said: Environmental justice is a major movement and organising discourse in the environmental politics, and both the movement and the idea have had a large influence on the way that climate justice has been conceptualised. While most discussions of climate justice in the academic literature focus on ideal conceptions and normative arguments of justice theory, or on the pragmatic policy of the more elite environmental nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), a distinct discourse has developed out of the grassroots. In these movement articulations of climate justice, the concerns and principles of environmental justice are clear and consistent. Climate justice focuses on local impacts and experience, inequitable vulnerabilities, importance of community voice, and demands for community sovereignty and functioning.

Vanuatu now stands as an example, to many extents, in this area.

Vanuatu, said a Time report (“Pacific Island Nations Are Bringing Their Climate Justice Fight to the World's Highest Court”, July 18, 2022,, is trying to build a coalition to get the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue a legal statement, or an advisory opinion, on climate change. On July 18, 2022, more than a dozen countries and territories in the Pacific region including Australia and New Zealand extended support to Vanuatu’s effort. Vanuatu is hoping to have an opinion of the ICJ on the obligations countries have to protect the rights of “present and future generations” from the harmful impacts of climate change. Vanuatu needs a simple majority at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to give the ICJ a mandate to act. While an ICJ opinion isn’t binding, it could go a long way in holding countries accountable for protecting human rights, from the right to food to the right to life itself, which are becoming increasingly vulnerable as climate change worsens.

The idea to get the ICJ in The Hague to issue an advisory opinion on climate change was conceived in 2019 by more than 20 students at the University of South Pacific in Vanuatu, a country that in 2015 experienced Cyclone Pam causing $450 million in economic losses, wiping out 64% of the country’s GDP. Bob Loughman, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu announced in September 2021 that he would build a coalition of countries to take the push forward. (ibid.)

The list of countries supporting the movement has been steadily growing. In March, the Caribbean Community, a group of 14 Caribbean nations and dependencies, said they supported Vanuatu. The Organisation of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States, a 79-country bloc, said in June that it endorses Vanuatu’s initiative. About 1,500 civil society groups also support the campaign. Pacific Island Forum members, like Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa, endorsed Vanuatu’s move. So did Australia — one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels. Adding number of countries supporting the initiative adds moral weight to the initiative. (ibid.)

The UNGA can request the ICJ to give an advisory opinion on any legal question of concern to the international community. Although advisory opinions aren’t legally binding, they carry “great legal weight and moral authority.” An advisory opinion could have a big impact on large emitters. Tim Stephens, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney Law School, tells Time that “even if the [ICJ] deals with wider legal issues such as the general obligations of states to protect the rights of future generations against the adverse effects of climate change it will carry implications for all governments that continue to make a significant contribution to the climate crisis”. An advisory opinion that strongly says that countries have concrete duties under existing law to take urgent action, or that historic polluters are liable for the loss and damage suffered by the rest of the world could be “a big blow to politics as usual,” says Douglas Guilfoyle, a professor of international law and security at the University of New South Wales’ Canberra campus. (ibid.)

Over the last few years, as the Time report said, there’s been an increase in cases of domestic litigation, and in interest in trying to leverage international courts to address the climate crisis. For example, the Commission of Small Island States (COSIS) on Climate Change and International Law, aims to be the first to bring a case to the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to help determine the obligations of countries under international law and hold polluters accountable. Wealthy countries have failed to provide poorer countries $100 billion a year to help them deal with climate change. In June, rich countries blocked the inclusion of “loss and damages”—or, compensation from historically high-emitting countries for the harm caused by the resulting carbon pollution—from the agenda of the COP27 climate meetings in November. (ibid.)

The Vanuatu case shows the political aspect of the issue.

There’s no scope today to confine the climate crisis issue within the narrow “climate-only” and “destruction-only” discussions, if the findings cited above are considered from people’s, especially the poor, the working people’s perspective. The issue is not also to be handled only by NGOS.

Rather, the issue should be handled by political organisations/parties, because,
(i)   capitals are involved,
(ii)  capitals’ conflict with people,
(iii) it’s political, and
(iv) this involves political decision.

These make the issue of climate one of the major and immediate tasks of political organisations/parties, especially, the political organisations of people, especially the poor. Even, the mainstream academia tells that the issue is political. Ignoring this aspect—political—is making a backward march, or passing days by sleeping. It’s unquestionabe that political issues should be handled politically.

The findings, etc. of the study by Callahan and Mankin are significant, as these show that movements on/of climate, poor peasants and agricultural labour, working class, rights, anti-imperialism, these are parts of democratic movement; even, rich farmers have ground to raise climate related demands; and the demands are political. The politics of the exploited classes have no scope to ignore the issue of climate, to be exact, climate expropriation, as the exploited classes suffer/pay most in this crisis.

1.      This is the modified version of an earlier article (Countercurrents, “Climate expropriation: US caused nearly $2 trillion damages to other countries from 1990 to 2014” July 13, 2022,
2.      Almost all quotes, direct/indirect, are from the study/media reports cited.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022