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Legal action won’t solve climate catastrophe—system change will

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A new report shows US has caused £1.6 trillion worth of “climate damage” across the Global South
Issue 2813
A sea of people on the protest against Cop26. They're holding banners and home-made placards fighting for system change not climate change

100,000 march against climate catastrophe at Cop26 conference in Glasgow last year (Picture: Andrew McGowan)

The US has caused more than £1.6 trillion worth of “climate damage” to poorer countries from the impact of its greenhouse gas emissions.

The Climatic Change journal report, published on Wednesday, says the US is responsible for £1.6 trillion in lost global income since 1990. It estimates this damage by looking at heatwaves, crop failures, rising sea levels and other consequences caused by the US pumping out vast tones of greenhouse gases.

It found that the top five biggest emitters—the US, China, Russia, Brazil and India—have caused over £5 trillion in income losses worldwide since 1990.

The researchers from Dartmouth College say rising temperatures have an impact on gross domestic product (GDP) through “lowering agricultural yields, reducing labour productivity and decreasing industrial output.” They said, “While previous studies have illustrated the economic harms of global warming, our work shows that these harms can be assigned to individual emitters.”

The report’s models could be used to calculate the impact of an individual company’s emissions. This would be a useful tool for climate activists to pin the blame on the corporate climate criminals. But simply looking at the impact on states’ GDP is severely limited. It ignores the huge full-scale toll of climate catastrophe on ordinary people—for instance, the growing crisis of climate refugees.

The US and European capitalist powers fuelled industrial growth through fossil fuels and plundered the Global South during the 19th and 20th centuries. This legacy of underdevelopment at the hands of colonialism means countries in the Global South are already in a worse position to deal with climate change.

Over a decade ago rich states promised to send nearly £100 billion dollars by 2020 to poorer countries to help mitigate climate change. They never coughed up the money they said they would. However, the study says one aim is to “provide an essential basis for nations to make legal claims for economic losses tied to emissions and warming”.

Justin Makin, one of the senior researchers, was clear that it could provide the basis for litigation. “Greenhouse gases emitted in one country cause warming in another, and that warming can depress economic growth,” he said.

“This research provides legally valuable estimates of the financial damages individual nations have suffered due to other countries’ climate-changing activities.”

At Cop27 in Egypt in November, there are plans to discuss “loss and damages” to try and get countries like the US and China to pay for the destruction they caused. 

But one state suing another one won’t benefit ordinary people in the Global South. It will only line the pockets of the ruling classes of those states, whose aim is to compete within global capitalism.

The real solution lies with a movement that can challenge the fossil fuel capitalists and their profit-system that’s drives inequality and disaster.

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