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Arielle M. Balbus:
Thoughts on ecological debt

Arielle Balbus ’11 writes about “ecological debt” — a moral, historical obligation that requires developed countries to compensate for the environmental problems of developing countries. It is considered a radical idea but seems less so viewed in the context of rich and poor. Balbus is among 10 Brown students attending the conference with J. Timmons Roberts, director of the Center for Environmental Studies and professor of sociology.
By Arielle M. Balbus  |  December 5, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Cancun itself may not be a hotbed of radicalism, but I could be becoming a convert. I know this because of the time I spend on the bus. During today’s contemplation, I mused that if a suburban pre-med Brown student were to have a Motorcycle Diaries 2010 trip, it might look a little bit like this: sitting in traffic on an overly air -conditioned charter bus, feeling pain about the associated carbon emissions and more pain about the people I visit with between bus rides.

The material luxury of the landscape here and the intangible luxury of rich countries able to sit on solutions for another year sharpens the suffering of people who are barred from approaching the buildings where their fates will be decided.

I had the immense/intense privilege of spending several hours this afternoon with the Indigenous Ecological Federation of Chiapas (FIECH), a coalition of 16 organizations who arrived at Dialogo Climático-Espacio Mexicano this afternoon with a petition of their demands around climate change.

At least 20 of their people gathered around the picnic bench to share their collective story: Their lands were slammed by Hurricane Javier in 1998 and then by Hurricane Stan in 2005 and they have not found the money to rebuild everyone’s house. They are attempting to supply organic coffee to Starbucks in the face of drought, torrential rains, and devastating mudslides. They are trying to prepare for the next storm as best they can when they have downtime from the full-time struggle for subsistence.

I haven’t researched whether there is literature out there that links extreme weather in Chiapas to climate change, and I really don’t care. The scientific community has reached a consensus that greenhouse gas emissions lead to global warming which leads to more extreme hurricanes, droughts and torrential rains, along with other threats that become disasters. Whatever caused these communities their pain, their children are guaranteed more regular, more fatal doses.

With this in mind, the FIECH is asking the Mexican government to help them relocate, starting with the most threatened communities. When I asked them where they wanted to go, they said “somewhere near our homes, but somewhere safe”.

How many more people are looking for that place?

Ecological debt is the concept that developed countries’ pollution and historical resource extraction from formerly colonized countries morally obligates us to compensate for environmental problems in developing countries. It is considered a fairly radical strand of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change discourse.

If we fast-forward to COP-36, and still have not found an international mechanism to enable comprehensive adaptation in developing countries, and there has been no transformative change in our economic activity, and I am able to find and pay for clean water and safe shelter for my children and the 21 year-old activist I spoke with yesterday cannot, will we be able to face ecological debt?