News of Hurricane Dorian’s first casualty came early on Monday morning from the Bahamas Press. A seven-year old boy named Lachino Mcintosh drowned as his family attempted to find safer ground than their home on the Abaco islands. Dorian is reportedly the strongest hurricane to have ever hit the Bahamas and the second most powerful Atlantic storm on record. Five deaths have been reported so far, and more are likely. The Bahamian MP and minister of foreign affairs, the Honorable Darren Henfield, offered a bleak update form the area he represents to reporters: “We have reports of casualties, we have reports of bodies being seen.”
Rising temperatures don’t make hurricanes more frequent, but they do help make them more devastating. Each of the last five years have seen Category 5 storms pass through the Atlantic, brewed over hotter than usual waters. How many more people have to die before political leaders treat climate change like the global catastrophe it is?
Donald Trump has been rightly criticized for golfing as Dorian devastated the Bahamas and drifted toward the US. But it’s as good a metaphor as any for the way elites across political lines have approached the crisis they have helped create and continue to fuel. One of the cruelest realities of global warming is that the people whohave done the least to contribute to it tend to be among the first and worst hit. Nations like the United States have amassed tremendous wealth both by burning fossil fuels and exploiting land and labor from the places most threatened by rising temperatures through slavery, colonialism and their living legacies. Similar inequalities play out within nations, including in the US, where most people’s own carbon footprints are dwarfed by those of the billionaires and fossil fuel executives best equipped to insulate themselves from heavy weather.
Internationally, climate-vulnerable countries have for decades made the case that more ambition is needed, focusing policymakers’ concerns on to issues of equity. The Bahamas is part of a group within the UN known as the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis), comprising countries already being hammered by climate impacts who have got comparatively few financial resources to deal with them. The Aosis chair and Maldives energy minister, Thoriq Ibrahim, argued at COP 24 last year that it would “be suicide not to use every lever of power we have to demand what is fair and just: the support we need to manage a crisis that has been thrust upon us”.
That support has not been forthcoming. In its special report released last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius – a level already dangerous for low-lying states – would require an annual investment in decarbonization of $3tn through 2050. And that’s just to mitigate warming. Trillions more will be required to adapt to the climate impacts already locked in, ensuring that when hurricanes like Dorian do hit they do less damage. Repairing the loss and damage of storms and other disasters is expected to cost $300bn a year by 2030, jumping to $1.2tn a year by 2060. As the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and its biggest economy, the United States has both the ability and an outsized responsibility to decarbonize rapidly and make it possible for countries do the same – a climate debt.
Back in 2009, industrialized nations pledged to mobilize $100bn toward mitigation and adaptation efforts by 2020, a response to persistent demands from climate justice organizers. As of last September, only $3.5bn had actually been allocated to the fund and just $10.3bn pledged to the multilateral body that’s supposed to be the main vehicle for dispersing that money, the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Before he left office, Obama promised $3bn toward the GCF. Just $1bn of that ever materialized before Trump withdrew that vow. That’s a fraction of the estimated $15bn a year the federal government spends subsidizing fossil fuel development. At the end of August, the US Import-Export Bank approved $5bn in financing for a natural gas project in Mozambique. We have more than enough money to fight the climate crisis, at home and abroad. It’s just going to all the wrong places.
Greenhouse gases don’t fit neatly within borders. Efforts to curb them can’t either. Like other wealthy countries, the US has a responsibility to pay its fair share for the damage it’s caused to the planet – not through predatory loans or disastrously managed charity but through solidarity. Bernie Sanders’ plan for a Green New Deal pledges $200bn to the GCF, makes climate a centerpiece of American trade and foreign policy and ends fossil fuel financing through institutions like the Import-Export Bank. An extensive, recently released blueprint of a Green New Deal for Europe lays out a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels, accounting for the emissions rich countries export abroad through trade and the need for a thoroughly democratic response to the climate crisis that doesn’t let the governments who have engineered this crisis call all the shots on how the world handles it.
It’ll be tempting, as Dorian drifts toward Florida, for observers in the US to forget the death and destruction it has left behind elsewhere. That would be a mistake. Jeff Bezos’s escape plans notwithstanding, we’re all stuck on this warming planet together. Whether human civilization stays intact amid all this worsening weather depends on recognizing our shared humanity – and designing policy accordingly. Platitudes for the planet won’t cut it.
Kate Aronoff is a freelance journalist covering climate change and US politics