Climate Reparations: Gordon Brown’s Initiative and its Resonance With the Legacy of the Slave Trade

Climate protestors in Egypt during this month’s COP27 conference. Credit: Getty.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a striking increase in extreme weather events worldwide. We’ve observed snowfall in regions that were once considered desert landscapes. A notable example of this transformation unfolded in California, USA, where devastating wildfires and extensive flooding have left communities grappling with the consequences.

On a global scale, our climate has undergone significant and unexpected shifts. It has become increasingly challenging to distinguish between the four distinct seasons of winter, spring, summer, and autumn, which used to be easily identifiable markers of the passing year. This is primarily because these seasons have become less sharply defined, with overlapping occurrences that can lead to winter-like conditions during what should be the gentle embrace of spring, and vice versa.

These changes in our climate are not merely statistics or abstract data; they are very real and are profoundly impacting our lives and the environment we inhabit. As we bear witness to these transformations, it is clear that we must take collective action to understand, mitigate, and adapt to the evolving climate in order to ensure a better future for all. Climate change is universally acknowledged as the most significant issue of our time, and we stand at a pivotal moment in history. It becomes apparent when we observe the shifting weather patterns that imperil our food production and the rising sea levels that intensify the threat of catastrophic flooding.

It’s crucial to recognize that the impacts of climate change extend globally and are of an unprecedented magnitude. Expert studies confirm that, while climate change may not be entirely preventable, it can be mitigated. To avert the most severe repercussions, the world must strive to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, or ideally even sooner. In essence, this means that we should balance the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere with the amount that is removed. At this juncture, I invite you to explore Gordon Brown’s innovative strategy to combat climate change, a topic expected to dominate discussions at the upcoming COP28 event scheduled for next month in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Before delving into the formula, it’s essential to first grasp the gravity of the climate change crisis that currently looms over our world.

Understanding the scale of this challenge is crucial to appreciating why climate issues have taken center stage, even overshadowing evolving conflicts in Europe (such as Russia/Ukraine) and the Middle East (like Israel/Hamas). These conflicts have, in recent times , posed a significant threat to global peace. Scientists are sounding a compelling alarm, emphasizing the undeniable reality that our world has already experienced a warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era.

This warming trend has given rise to a multitude of extreme weather events, each unfolding in unique ways across different regions of the globe. Take, for instance, the devastating wildfire that recently swept through Maui, a picturesque tourist destination in Hawaii. Tragically, this inferno claimed the lives of 55 individuals. It is believed that the ferocity of this wildfire was stoked by the twin factors of rising temperatures and prolonged drought – clear manifestations of the impacts of climate change.

Similarly, we witnessed a tropical storm wreaking havoc in California, an event so remarkable that scientists noted it as the first occurrence of its kind in 84 years. Furthermore, the recent flooding in New York City claimed the lives of approximately 13 residents. In the wake of these heart-wrenching catastrophes, our collective response to the climate crisis has reached a new level of urgency, far surpassing the concern that prevailed just a decade ago. It is a stark reminder that the time for meaningful action is now, as our world grapples with the consequences of a changing climate.

In an interesting twist of belief, it is widely held that Exxon Mobil’s internal research accurately foresaw the consequences of burning fossil fuels on our planet’s temperature. This belief, however, faces staunch denial from the oil and gas giant. Exxon Mobil has consistently refuted these allegations, asserting, “This issue has arisen on multiple occasions in recent years, and on each occasion, our response remains unswerving: those who claim that ‘Exxon Knew’ have drawn incorrect conclusions.” This dissenting perspective doesn’t align with the findings of two prominent climate scientists, Naomi Oreskes, a professor specializing in the history of science at Harvard University, and Geoffrey Supran, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami. Their collaborative report has provided an unprecedented quantification of Exxon’s awareness.

Their research illuminates that the combustion of Exxon’s fossil fuel products is projected to contribute to a warming of approximately 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, thus bringing a human touch to the ongoing climate debate. In the face of overwhelming evidence, energy companies, despite the substantial profits they derive from activities leading to emissions responsible for climate change, have been criticized for minimizing their role in global warming. Some experts draw parallels between this situation and the tobacco industry’s prolonged denial of the link between smoking and lung cancer, a stance they maintained until the evidence became impossible to refute.

Regardless of one’s perspective, the failure to address the urgent implications of climate change in a timely manner has led to severe consequences for humanity. We now grapple with the devastating fallout of our inaction. It is perhaps these very considerations that led Mr. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2007-2010), to formulate a distinctive approach to combat the looming climate crisis. Remarkably, Gordon Brown’s initiative places the responsibility for addressing climate change squarely on the shoulders of nations heavily reliant on fossil fuel energy. He contends that these countries Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Norway, United Arab Emirates, UAE are primarily responsible for the alarming rise in global temperatures. He describes these nations as “petro-states” and highlights their staggering profits in recent years due to soaring oil prices. In 2022, the five wealthiest petro-states, which include Kuwait, saw their oil revenues double.

Supporting his argument with data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), Gordon Brown notes that global revenues from oil and gas surged from $1.5 trillion (£1.2 trillion) before the COVID-19 pandemic to an unprecedented $4 trillion (£3.3 trillion). This dramatic increase underscores the urgent need to address the impact of these industries on our planet. In a notable address, Mr. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and current United Nations Climate Ambassador, shed light on the remarkable profits amassed by energy companies. These companies, unfortunately, bear a significant responsibility for environmental pollution, which, in turn, contributes to the growing prevalence of extreme weather conditions. Mr. Brown put forth a thoughtful proposition: that these energy giants ought to contribute a modest portion (3%) of their substantial wealth towards supporting developing nations in dealing with the repercussions of severe weather events.

This suggestion emerges from a profound concern for the human impact of climate change. To grasp the enormity of these figures, consider this: $4 trillion is a sum 20 times larger than the entire global aid budget. It is a financial magnitude that surpasses even the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United Kingdom. These energy-producing nations, however, have made no meaningful efforts to deserve this unprecedented windfall. Such a staggering transfer of wealth from impoverished to affluent nations stands as one of the most substantial disparities in recent history. It is essential that we address this inequity to ensure a more equitable and humane world. The acceptance of the former UK Prime Minister’s proposal by the relevant stakeholders remains uncertain, and clarity on this matter may only emerge during the upcoming climate change conference COP 28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, scheduled for next month in November.

In the meantime, it is noteworthy that Mr. Brown’s endeavor to safeguard our planet from the dire consequences of climate change bears a striking resemblance to the African nations’ call for reparations from the Western world. These reparations are sought in response to the historical harm inflicted on the African continent through the transatlantic slave trade. Regrettably, progress in addressing this demand has been slow, possibly due to a reluctance within the Western world to embrace the concept of reparations.Africa has long pursued a path of appealing to the moral conscience of the Western world in its quest for reparations. An appeal is being directed towards the nations of Europe and North America, which, for a period spanning six centuries, harnessed the labor of enslaved Africans. This dark chapter in history not only depleted the African continent of its precious natural resources but also tore away its resilient young men and productive maidens from their homeland, forcing them into a life of toil in the Caribbean and the Americas on sugarcane and cotton plantations. It’s undeniable that much of the affluence found in the European and North American nations today traces its roots back to this historical exploitation.

The paradox lies in the fact that, presently, countless Africans embark on perilous journeys, often braving the treacherous Mediterranean Sea in fragile boats and traversing the unforgiving Sahara Desert in a desperate bid to reach the very lands that were forged through the relentless sweat and toil of their enslaved ancestors. Regrettably, individuals in slavery find themselves devoid of basic rights, rendering them unable to stake a claim on the lands that, in the eyes of Africans, brim with promise and prosperity.

This yearning to migrate to these fertile lands is driven by a deep human desire for a better life. It presents a profound irony and paradox that the descendants of the same Africans who were forcibly transported to Europe and the Americas as slaves, against their will, are now met with barriers in their quest for entry. Their desperation pushes them to seek illegal routes into Europe and North America, fraught with considerable risks, often culminating in tragic loss of life. These African youths, the inheritors of a legacy that contributed to the foundations of wealth in these renowned countries, embark on journeys in search of the fabled “land flowing with milk and honey.” Sadly, they encounter rejection at the hands of immigration authorities and face a multitude of formidable obstacles, including imposing walls, as they reach the borders of these nations. Even when individuals successfully reach their intended destinations through irregular pathways, such as the perilous Mediterranean Sea and the unforgiving Sahara Desert – which are alternative routes exploited by human traffickers – they must grapple with evading barriers erected by authorities to obstruct their entry. Throughout history, Africa has endured the plundering of its resources, a practice that persists today through unjust trade dealings. Despite ongoing calls for reparations from the descendants of those who oppressed them, these pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

It perplexes me deeply that those responsible for the abhorrent transgression of treating Africans as commodities have not recognized the need for restitution. One effective way to begin making amends is to invest in initiatives like establishing factories in African countries, which can generate employment opportunities for the multitude of unemployed young people on the continent. Unemployment primarily drives the motivation for individuals to seek migration. China implemented a strategic approach aimed at curbing migration from rural areas to urban regions or to Hong Kong by establishing factories in the hinterland and along the coastlines with Hong Kong to stem migration.

If a similar endeavor is replicated in Africa,it would be driven by a desire to create a positive impact beyond mere financial gains. Rather than focusing solely on profit for the factories , these factories to be established in Africa by the industrialized world should be founded with a profound commitment to addressing social issues. This approach would mark a departure from the centuries-old tradition of providing aid to Africa, and instead, embrace the principle encapsulated in the slogan, “Africa needs trade, not aid.” In a remarkable turn of events, former United Kingdom Prime Minister Mr. Gordon Brown has taken a unique approach to address the urgent need to safeguard our planet. His initiative involves urging nations that have profited significantly from fossil fuel exploitation to allocate resources for the benefit of African countries. These nations have not contributed to environmental degradation but are, regrettably, suffering the consequences of climate change resulting from emissions by industrialized economies.

To complement Mr. Brown’s commendable efforts in managing climate change is my proposal for the industrialized world to establish factories in Africa for the production of essential goods from abundant local resources in Africa. Adjunct to that is another aspect that deserves consideration. It involves addressing the historical injustices stemming from the devastating effects of the slave trade. To do this, Western nations, to whom many African countries owe substantial financial debts, could provide debt relief through international institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and the Paris Club. This step would go a long way in acknowledging and rectifying the immeasurable losses experienced by African nations.

The central idea is that urging industrialized nations, particularly the primary beneficiaries of fossil fuel exploration, to establish funds for climate change mitigation in vulnerable African countries can be likened to Africa’s historical appeal to Europe and North America for reparations due to the devastating impacts of the abhorrent slave trade conducted over centuries. However, the former US Secretary of State and current UN climate envoy, John Kerry, seems to resist this proposition.

This became evident when he recently addressed US lawmakers, categorically stating that the United States would not, “under any circumstances,” provide reparations to developing nations grappling with climate change-induced disasters. Kerry’s stance emerged during his discussions with parliamentarians as part of his preparations for the forthcoming climate conference set to convene in Dubai, UAE. His refusal to entertain the idea of reparations reflects a contentious issue at the heart of the global climate debate. At the previous year’s conference, COP27, hosted in Egypt, an important consensus emerged involving over 200 nations. This landmark agreement was aimed at establishing a fund dedicated to addressing loss and damage caused by the adverse impacts of climate change. The primary source of funding for this endeavor would primarily come from developed nations, with the intention of subsequently disbursing these funds to those nations by deemed “particularly vulnerable.”

As we anticipate the forthcoming UN climate conference, COP28, scheduled for November in the vibrant city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), global leaders have a pivotal opportunity to elaborate on the practical implementation of this Loss And Damage Fund agreement. As reported by BBC’s insightful journalist, Oliver Snow, it’s critical to acknowledge the plight of developing nations, which are disproportionately affected by the adverse consequences of climate change. These nations have been advocating for a system of assured compensation from developed countries.

They assert that historical emissions of greenhouse gases, predominantly attributable to developed nations, bear responsibility for the current state of climate change. In light of this, the demand for compensation is an earnest appeal rooted in the principles of equity and shared responsibility. In his report, he highlighted the growing recognition among wealthier nations of the pressing need to contribute more substantial financial resources to tackle the climate crisis. However, the term “reparations” has sparked controversy, with some considering it a divisive label. At the same time, developing nations assert that the financial targets aimed at addressing climate change fall short of what is required.

To illustrate, data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reveals that in 2013, only $52.4 billion had been raised for this cause. By 2015, this figure had decreased to $44.6 billion. Nonetheless, in 2016, funding showed signs of a resurgence, reaching $58.5 billion, and it continued to climb to $94.5 billion in 2022, with a projection that it would breach the $100 billion threshold in the current year. In a move that redefined the agenda for COP28 in Dubai, UAE, Mr. Gordon Brown took a bold stance by holding accountable the energy giants who amassed substantial wealth through oil and gas exploration. Notably, he singled out nations like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Norway and Kuwait.

This pivotal action marked a shift towards addressing climate change in a more compassionate and inclusive manner. Moreover, I have introduced an additional dimension to the discussion. Beyond the oil-producing countries previously highlighted by Mr. Brown, we must also recognize the responsibility of industrialized nations, which have historically been the leading contributors to environmental pollution. These countries have perpetuated high emissions since the Industrial Revolution, spanning from the 18th to the 19th century. To promote a more humane and equitable approach to climate change, they should seriously contemplate offsetting the burdens borne by vulnerable nations impacted by this global crisis.

Understanding why many African countries are burdened by debt is straightforward. Historically, these nations fell into a vicious cycle due to a series of unfortunate events. First, they were ruthlessly exploited by slave merchants who abducted their young and able-bodied men and women. Later, these regions were subjected to colonial rule, which continued to exploit their abundant natural resources. Consequently, Africa found itself devoid of the essential economic foundations necessary to elevate itself towards the growth and prosperity it so rightfully deserves.

A poignant example illustrating the stunted growth of the African continent, attributed to the historical injustices imposed by Western powers, can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Presently, this nation bears the scars of relentless mineral exploitation, rendering it a near-barren landscape. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu brought into sharp focus the harrowing reality facing the people of Congo in particular. His message, delivered at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, USA, last September, urged world leaders to direct their attention to the suffering endured by Africa due to the overwhelming influence of global superpowers and affluent nations. This call for empathy underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and support. “In the aftermath of the Second World War, nations gathered in an attempt to rebuild their war-torn societies.

A new global system was born, and this great body, the United Nations, was established as a symbol and protector of the aspirations and finest ideals of humankind. Nations saw that it was in their own interests to help others exit the rubble and wasteland of war. Reliable and significant assistance allowed countries emaciated by war to grow into strong and productive societies. The period was a high water mark for trust in global institutions and the belief that humanity had learned the necessary lessons to move forward in global solidarity and harmony. Today and for several decades, Africa has been asking for the same level of political commitment and devotion to resources that described the Marshall Plan.

We realize that the underlying conditions and causes of the economic challenges facing today’s Africa are significantly different from those of post-war Europe. We are not asking for identical programs and actions. What we seek is an equally firm commitment to partnership. We seek enhanced international cooperation with African nations to achieve the 2030 agenda and Sustainable Development Goals”. President Tinubu’s recent speech, deeply rooted in African interests, gains significant significance due to his role as the current ECOWAS chairman. Many have regarded this address as one of the most profound and far-reaching ever delivered by an African leader.

It conveyed a powerful message to Western nations, urging them to reconsider their actions without resorting to arrogance and to acknowledge that the time has come to end the prolonged oppression Africa has endured. In my perspective, one transformative step that could foster forgiveness within Africa toward Europeans and North Americans for the historical exploitation of the continent is a sincere commitment to debt relief and the establishment of industrial facilities within Africa, either in place of or as a complementary form of reparations. This approach holds the potential to lay the foundation for a more harmonious and cooperative relationship between the continents, fostering goodwill and mutual understanding.

One of the key avenues through which Africa can attain self-reliance, rather than persistently functioning as a net exporter of raw materials at significantly reduced prices while serving as a colossal importer of finished goods at inflated costs, is an aspect that has consistently subjected Africans to perpetual financial strain. The income of many Africans consistently fails to align with their expenditures, often exemplified by the act of exporting raw materials for paltry returns while incurring exorbitant expenses on imports.

It’s a lamentable fact, as substantiated by available research, that Africa presently accounts for a mere 2 percent of global trade. This statistic is particularly astonishing when one considers the immense wealth of resources available across the continent, which encompasses a rich array of commodities, including oil, gas, diamonds, gold, cobalt, lithium,uranium, and a diverse range of agricultural products such as coffee, tea, and cocoa. This dearth in global trade representation is indeed disheartening given Africa’s abundance of valuable assets. Amid the ongoing power struggle between the United States and China, it is essential to consider the profound impact of the past and acknowledge the importance of empathy.

Denying Africa reparations for the immense suffering it endured during the era of the transatlantic slave trade only perpetuates the negative emotions that this dehumanizing experience has left in the hearts of many Africans for generations. Regrettably, this denial has created a growing divide between Africa and Europe/America, akin to the unyielding strength of the Rock of Gibraltar. Rather than fostering reconciliation and understanding, it has the potential to harden the hearts of Africans against their former Western colonizers. In stark contrast to the reluctance of Europe and North America to address the issue of reparations for the slave trade, China, as the world’s second-largest economy, is pursuing a different path.

Through its Belt and Road initiative, China is actively engaging with and winning the hearts and minds of a substantial portion of the African and Middle Eastern populations. This approach offers a refreshing perspective on international relations, focusing on building bridges and fostering mutual respect, rather than perpetuating historical wounds. It comes as no shock that the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) foresees China swiftly surpassing the European Union (EU) as Africa’s primary trading partner. This prediction is substantiated by the remarkable 35% surge in trade between the continent and Africa, reaching a substantial $354 billion in 2021.

Such a development underscores China’s growing prominence as a key player in fostering human connections through commerce on the African continent. The surge in economic interactions between China and Africa is being greatly propelled by the optimistic approach and vision of the Chinese Premier, Xi Jinping. During his recent speech at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Belt and Road initiative, held in China, Premier Xi used a compelling and heartfelt narrative to showcase China’s strong commitment to partnership. “Belt and Road cooperation is based on the principles of planning together, building together, and benefiting together. It transcends differences between civilizations, cultures, social systems, and stages of development.

It has opened up a new path for exchanges among countries and established a new framework for international cooperation. Indeed, the BRI represents humanity’s joint pursuit of development for all.” The Chinese premier,Xi Jinping continued by stating: “We have learned that win-win cooperation is the sure way to success in launching major initiatives that benefit all. When countries embrace cooperation and act in concert, a deep chasm can be turned into a thoroughfare, land-locked countries can become land-linked, and a place of underdevelopment can be transformed into a land of prosperity. Countries taking the lead in economic development should lend a hand to their partners who are yet to catch up.We should all treat each other as friends and partners, respect and support each other, and help each other succeed.

As the saying goes, when you give roses to others, their fragrance lingers on your hand. In other words, helping others is also helping oneself. Viewing others’ development as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development.”. This sharp contrast in approach between Africa and the Western world demands the attention of Africans in the West. In the midst of this, it is essential to note that the Jewish community, who endured the horrors of the Holocaust under the Nazi regime during the Third Reich in Germany, began receiving reparations as early as 1952. Remarkably, these payments are still ongoing, with an impressive sum of over €80 billion euros disbursed to Jewish victims as of the previous year. This begs the question: If Germany can acknowledge its historical wrongdoing and offer reparations to the Jewish community, then why is there a reluctance among European and North American nations, including Germany itself, which played a significant role in the African slave trade, to extend similar restitution to Africa? As the old adage suggests, what benefits one should benefit all.

It’s heartening to see some of the invaluable treasures, pillaged by European adventurers during the exploitation of entire continents, returning to their rightful homes as a gesture of moral responsibility. However, it’s equally crucial to consider financial compensation as a means to mend the wounds and bring closure to the haunting chapter of history. The question that currently looms is why the Western world, with a particular focus on the United States, as exemplified by Mr. John Kerry’s testimony before the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, appears hesitant to provide reparations to Africa for the historical injustice of enslavement. As we approach the upcoming climate conference, COP28, set to take place in Dubai, UAE this November, it presents a significant opportunity for the Western powers, often characterized as the industrialized world, to reassess their position regarding the financial reparations and restitution that have been fervently advocated for by African nations over the years.

This moment calls for a compassionate reevaluation of the historical wrongs and the moral responsibility that comes with them. Former British Prime Minister Apart from Gordon Brown’s proposed formula, suggesting that energy companies and nations that have greatly profited from fossil fuel exploration could consider setting aside part of their profits (3%) for the climate remediation fund, developed nations should consider investing in Africa. This investment would not primarily focus on generating profits, but rather on creating job opportunities on the continent. The goal? To address the issue of African citizens seeking better prospects abroad and to extend a helping hand. Additionally, the idea of Western countries forgiving a substantial portion, if not the entirety, of the debt owed by African nations presents an opportunity for the developed world to rectify past shortcomings.

In essence, these propositions offer a humane approach to global issues and a chance for the developed world to make positive changes. As the upcoming COP28 forum draws near, there is a growing sense of anticipation regarding the West’s willingness to seize the opportunity to initiate positive change, especially for the continent of Africa, which has borne the brunt of climate-related disasters.

This hinges on whether the Western world can shift its stance on providing financial support to Africa, which has thus far been marked by inflexibility. The world watches with bated breath, hopeful that reason will triumph over self-interest during COP28. This momentous event holds the potential to redefine the relationship between industrialized nations and Africa, transcending historical inequalities and fostering a more equitable and compassionate global approach.

Men and women of goodwill from every corner of the globe eagerly await this pivotal juncture, yearning for a future where humanity’s collective welfare takes precedence over individual agendas.

Magnus Onyibe,an entrepreneur,public policy analyst ,author,democracy advocate,development strategist,alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,Tufts University, Massachusetts,USA and a former commissioner in Delta state government, sent this piece from Lagos, Nigeria.

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