The case for climate reparations through carbon removal: An interview with David Wallace-Wells

·Senior Climate Editor
·2 min read

New York magazine editor-at-large David Wallace-Wells began writing about climate change, he said, "because I was scared." He went to write "The Uninhabitable Earth," a 2019 book that painted a grim portrait of a future plagued by extreme weather events such as wildfires, heat waves, droughts and hurricanes. 

In the years since, those phenomena have continued to become more frequent and severe, especially in warm countries that tend to be poor and are least able to cope with disasters. So, late last year, Wallace-Wells wrote a long cover story for New York, laying out the case for climate reparations, in which rich countries would pay to ameliorate the damage they have caused by burning fossil fuels. But whereas climate aid is currently given to developing nations only to help them adapt to climate change or develop green economies, Wallace-Wells argues that each country should foot the bill for using emerging carbon-removal technology to actually pull its share of carbon dioxide out of the air. 

"The whole world is dealing with a problem, and the Global South, by accident of geography, essentially, is dealing with it much more intensely than the Global North, because of what has happened in countries like the U.S., the U.K., the rest of the E.U., to some degree China," he told Yahoo News in an appearance on "The Climate Crisis Podcast." "Then I just put it together with this new work on carbon removal, where they're actually putting a price on what it costs to take carbon out of the air, and I thought, 'That's a very simple math problem.' We know how much damage each of these countries has done. ... We can actually calculate it in the literal meaning of the word 'reparations' — what it takes to undo that damage, to repair that damage." 

Two people walk outside homes through floodwater that is almost knee-deep.
Residents wade through floodwater in Nakuru county, Kenya, in 2020. (Monicah Mwangi/Reuters)

Wallace-Wells's argument is informed by extraordinary inequality in historical emissions of the greenhouse gases causing global warming. "All of sub-Saharan Africa, where there are more than a billion people living today, is responsible for about 1 percent of all historical emissions," he noted on the podcast. "The U.S., one country whose total population is about a third of all of sub-Saharan Africa, is responsible for 20 percent of all historical emissions. So the U.S. is the big sinner here: To the extent that we have a climate crisis today, one-fifth of that problem is the creation of the United States." 

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