It is a matter of environmental justice. The US and other developed nations have spent the better part of two centuries building their economies while chewing through the world's resources, polluting the air and water in the process and triggering the change in climate that has part of the Third World facing extinction. They have a responsibility not only to reduce their own emissions, but to pay to repair the damage they've created.
"Poorer nations," as the New York Times reports on its Web site, "are demanding billions of dollars in support to undertake costly measures intended to limit climate change over the next decade or so as well as longer term policies aimed through the second half of the century."
Poorer nations -- those on "the frontlines of global warming," according to the Times -- are facing immediate challenges.
Consider Sudan, which has been wracked by civil war in several provinces, including genocide in Darfur. Those wars, in part, have been caused by "Scarcity of food sources from destruction of farmland and pastoral areas" caused by "changing climatic conditions," a Sudanese minister told the Times.
Grenada faces the loss of its coral reef and fishing industry, Maldives anticipates being forced to relocate its people and Bangladesh is ravaged by flooding. The list of potential crises seems endless.
Oxfam International, the independent development agency that works to eradicate poverty, says that climate change "is driving many of the world's poorest people dangerously close to the edge of survival."
"The impacts of climate change are complex," the organization writes on its Web site. "Sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden, but nearly always hitting the poor first and hitting them hardest."
Poor countries, of course, contribute to climate change as they begin to develop, though their impact on the climate is not on the same scale as that of richer nations like ours. And, as a September article in The Economist points out, "global warming does far more damage to poor countries than they do to the climate."
The magazine quantified the cost in economic terms:
"In a report in 2006 Nicholas (now Lord) Stern calculated that a 2C rise in global temperature cost about 1% of world GDP. But the World Bank, in its new World Development Report, now says the cost to Africa will be more like 4% of GDP and to India, 5%. Even if environmental costs were distributed equally to every person on earth, developing countries would still bear 80% of the burden (because they account for 80% of world population). As it is, they bear an even greater share, though their citizens' carbon footprints are much smaller."
That's why it makes sense to create an international fund to help poor nations modernize their environmental infrastructure.
The problem is that the US has not been prepared (at least as of Dec. 10) to offer much more than offer a token sum -- $10 billion -- to get the fund off the ground.
Todd D. Stern, the American negotiator at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December, told a press conference that reparations for past pollution were off the table.
"I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like," he said. "For most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect. It's a relatively recent phenomenon."
That may be true, but it does not excuse the developed world from using some of the wealth it has earned during that 200-year bout of blissful ignorance to aid those bearing the brunt of this recent phenomenon.
Money is an issue, of course, given the state of our economy, our urgent needs (healthcare reform, jobs, infrastructure) and the massive debt we allowed George W. Bush to run up. But we are spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 trillion on our military (when you include all of the budget areas tied to defense and intelligence, including the two wars we are fighting), an astronomical figure that dwarfs what other nations spend. If we cut our military spending in half, we'd still outspend everyone else -- but have about a half a trillion dollars to put toward healthcare reform, infrastructure, the debt and climate change mitigation.