Climate Slave Reparations

Este é para Moçambique

Watching the highlights of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the year before we left to travel Africa Clockwise, I remember being quite staggered that director Danny Boyle had chosen to celebrate the Industrial Revolution as Britain’s crowning achievement. Was he really glorifying the guys in the stove-pipe hats who had whipped working class children to work 16 hour days in dire conditions? Was he really paying homage to the men who built their wealth – and the country’s, and the empire’s – on the backs of millions of slaves who were stolen from Africa along with their natural resources?

I was appalled by the smugness of Branagh/Brunel as he surveyed the destruction of the ‘green and pleasant land’ in the name of ‘Progress’. With all Danny’s genius for telling stories, did it not occur to him what the descendants of half the world who fell under the shackles of the colonial project would think? Those whose forefathers paid in blood, sweat and trauma for the cotton that built Manchester, the sugar that built Bristol, the tobacco that built Glasgow and the guns that built Birmingham? Did he really think they would join in lauding the founders of the Industrial Revolution, as they lifted up the burning brand at the centre of the five rings – the forging of which looked very much like the chains that had held the masses down across the global south for 300 years?

Surely Boyle could do better? I had hoped that the man who brought us the brutal realities of Trainspotting and showed the other side of ‘heroin chic’, might have reflected that the West’s addiction to fossil-fuelled profit was no less insidious. But there was no hint that the triumphs of Colonial Team GB were to impoverish huge swathes of the southern hemisphere and sew the seeds of suffering and inequality for generations to come.

In the nineteenth century, industrial emissions were dominated by the UK and EU countries; in the twentieth century the US took over as chief emitter of greenhouse gases; a mantle swiftly chased into the twenty-first by China. Today “the monthly emissions per capita in rich countries are mostly higher than the yearly emissions per capita in poorer countries”.

Check this graph of cumulative emissions since 1751 to see how the tiny sad blue sliver that is Africa compares to the dominant sunshine yellow effluent of the 28 countries of Europe. In this chart that maps energy use per capita as evidence of extreme poverty, Mozambique is at the far end.

According to this (if you only click on one, make it this one) genius interactive graphic, the world’s top 3 emitters in 2017 – China, USA and EU – contributed 14 times the emissions of the lowest 100. Mozambique was responsible for 0.06% of global emissions; Zimbabwe was also at 0.06% and Malawi at 0.02%. So in total they are causing 0.14% of the problem, yet they are bearing the brunt of the consequences.

On the day of the first global climate strike 15th March, Cyclone Idai made landfall, killing at least 1000 people across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Wind speeds of 165kmph, torrential rain and disastrous flooding destroyed 90% of the city of Beira, damaging all 17 of the area’s hospitals and leaving an inland sea visible from space. Flash flooding in Zimbabwe caused hundreds of deaths in Chimanimani district; in Malawi, hydroelectric power plants were damaged and collapsing dams caused the loss of 1400 homes in Blantyre.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and thousands more will go hungry this year (as a result of maize crops destroyed just a month before harvest) or die of cholera from stagnant and infected water.

Less than 6 weeks later, on 25th April, Cyclone Kenneth “the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Mozambique since modern records began” came to klap the coast once again just north of Pemba, with sustained winds of 220 kmph, equivalent to a category 4 hurricane. Kenneth was the record-breaking tenth tropical cyclone of the 2018-19 season, destroying 2500 homes in the Cabo Delgado province and 70% of staple crops in the Comoros.

This was the first time in history that two storms of category 2 strength or higher have hit Mozambique in the same season. Please click on the consequences: 3 million people were left in need of humanitarian assistance. The apocalyptic pictures of the devastation suggest Beira and Pemba have been trampled by three of the Four Horseman of the Book of Revelation: of pestilence, famine, war and death, it seems climate change catastrophe may have meted out all but war on southern Africa already.

Sitting here marooned in a garage in Malawi for more than 7 weeks (our 12th in garages this year) we are nevertheless feeling blessed because the delay in getting parts saved us from being in the impact zone – we had planned to be exploring the northern Mozambique coast by late March. Now I’m dreading what we are going to see.

So what if the proud leaders of the Industrial Revolution took the lead in combatting the catastrophic effects of it?

At a UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, Britain blocked EU countries from agreeing to ‘apologise’ for the transatlantic slave trade as a ‘crime against humanity’, but 15 former colonial powers finally consented to express ‘regret’ – on condition that such an acknowledgement would not admit any obligation to provide financial compensation. Successive British prime ministers from Blair to Cameron have repeatedly said how impossible and impracticable it would be to make reparations to descendants of slaves taken from Africa to serve the insatiable labour needs of the Industrial Revolution.

Well, now is their chance to make amends.

Rehousing and rebuilding infrastructure for the tens of thousands affected in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi would be a good start. Not only possible and practical, it might even be cheaper than building an Olympic stadium. Definitely cheaper than the rebuilding of Notre Dame, and, I venture to surmise, would grant you more leeway in heaven. (With what the colonisers have on their consciences, a prudent move.)

If they want to pass the buck, we know exactly who’s responsible for all the extreme weather and the 6th mass extinction currently underway. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Carbon Majors Report of 2017 found that “more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities“. Coal and oil parastatals in China, Saudi Arabia and Russia are named as top culprits alongside invester-owned Big Oil stalwarts ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron; South African  company BHP Billiton is no. 20 while Anglo American, Glencore and Sasol all make the top 50.

What’s more, they have known what they’ve been doing for 40 years. Big Oil, like Big Tobacco, knew precisely the risks to which their product was exposing their consumers, but chose profit over health: in Big Tobacco’s case, the health of smokers; in Big Oil’s, the health of the planet and life itself. Though the scale of the cover-up undertaken by Big Tobacco through the 1950s-70s is egregious, it pales into insignificance beside the Big Lie being promoted by Big Oil from 1970s till now.

If you are in any doubt about this, please listen to the epic podcast that nailed it: Drilled by Amy Westervelt, which “investigates the propaganda campaign of the century – the creation of climate denial.” In The Case for Climate Reparations (April 2018) Jason Mark asserts:

“The Carbon Barons are guilty not only of fraud but also of reckless negligence, of failing to use their early knowledge about climate change risks to shift the direction of human affairs. You can decide not to indulge in luxury emissions like a trip to Europe, but such abstinence will do almost nothing to reduce global warming. The Carbon Barons are in a different position. When they learned that their products could be catastrophic, they had the ability to intervene in the course of history. They possessed the scientific awareness, the economic might, and the political influence to have avoided climate chaos.

And they chose not to.” 

As the Carbon Barons have governments and the press in their very deep pockets, they think they are too far above the law to be touched:
“Between 2006 and 2016, the percentage of Americans who believed that humans were responsible for global warming went down, even as scientists’ certainty in their warnings increased. In the last 20 years, ExxonMobil has routinely broken U.S. records for corporate earnings. In 2014, the company posted its biggest annual profit ever: $32.5 billion.”

Mark continues: “This century will witness trillions of dollars of infrastructure and wealth destroyed in the course of unnatural disasters. Millions of human lives may be lost in heat waves, droughts, fires, and floods. Beyond the losses for human civilization, there are the damages to wild nature—the altered forests and the acidic seas. Is any settlement large enough to remedy the extinction of a species? One stumbles in trying to make such a reckoning.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in The Case for Reparations (June 2014) declared:

“The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.” 

Can we extrapolate from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comment on reparations for slave descendants suffering 400 years of economic abuse in the US and apply parallel logic for those about to endure the protracted horrors of global climate slavery into the next century? Can we admit that we are all in thrall to “a force so fundamental” to the world that it is difficult to imagine the planet without it: elitist greed, the pursuit of profit, the myth of perpetual growth and the wilful blindness to the ultimate price that capitalism’s slaves paid and climate slaves are about to pay?

The climate emergency we are facing is an opportunity to reject the financial system that has promoted such grotesque inequality and to recall ourselves to our innate cooperation and compassion. As we stand up for our planet and choose life, we may yet reclaim our humanity. A luta continua

With heartfelt thanks to the Instagram @ilhafamiliamz from the Ilha de Moçambique for the photos and the inspiration.

Com sinceros agradecimentos ao Instagram @ilhafamiliamz da Ilha de Moçambique pelas fotos e pela inspiração.

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