Half of the island of Vanuatu is now homeless in the wake of Cyclone Pam, with 90% of structures reported as damaged and many towns and villages without safe drinking water. You can't attribute a single weather event to climate change, but you can point out the quandary of having to rebuild a country (probably through loans from the Asian Development Bank and other international financial institutions, loans that will drive the country further into debt and make future development and resettlement difficult) that will almost certainly be underwater in a few decades.

In 2012/3, the House and the Senate voted to allocate $60 billion in aid towards relief and redevelopment in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. But at the end of last year, the House took major steps to block Obama's commitment of a paltry $3 billion to the UN climate fund.  All of the top 10 countries most at risk to climate change impacts are in the Global South (Vanuatu and other small island states aren't included in the Global Climate Risk Index on account of their size and lack of socioeconomic data).

Ecological debt means that industrialized nations have an obligation to cover the costs of mitigation, adaptation, redevelopment, and resettlement of disadvantaged populations by a phenomena that we created. While the US climate movement has made many admirable strides in the last few years, Vanuatu brings three of its major failures to mind:

1) The importance of stating that irreversible climate change is happening here and now. Even if we haven't yet reached the tipping points (even the most conservative estimates of the IPCC put 2015 as the year that emissions would have to peak, and that is unlikely to happen), language along the lines of "We need to stop KXL in order to avoid irreversable climate change" implies that the lives of people in places like Vanuatu and Tuvalu, places where we've known for years would not survive a two degree temperature rise, don't matter. Many if not most of the countries in the Global Climate Risk Index have already seen irreversible effects of climate change. Defining climate change according to its relationship to the US, rather than its relationship to the people most affected by it, is one of the most enduring and disgusting examples of environmental racism in our movement.

2) The US climate movement has purposely avoided the topic of ecological debt. The reason for this is simple. Americans, including many climate activists, don't want to pay for it. The big NGOs know this will be really unpopular with their middle class base, so most of them don't touch it.

3) A commitment to immigration reform that meets the needs of climate refugees needs to become a central goal of the US climate movement. The amount of displaced people in Bangladesh alone could reach as high as 20 million people. Free and open borders in the US and other developed countries is an essential component of climate justice, and it's time that activists stopped overlooking immigration because of its unpopularity at home.


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