Being Free Means Getting Climate Reparations Right: But Not Everyone Is Onboard – OpEd

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Those who would have to pay the most are trying to hide what the climate crisis is costing the rest of us and ignoring the fact that social justice begins with a fair start in life.

Climate change has already caused harm not only to mothers and children, but also to people of color, Indigenous and fenceline communities, and residents of the world’s poorest nations. These groups have been disproportionately impacted by environmental crises that, for the most part, stem from the pollutive, extractive, and consumerist behaviors of rich nations.

How will they be compensated for this long-term and ongoing harm? Wealthy nations will have to compensate less wealthy ones for the loss and damage, including effective reparation methods like direct payments to young women, mothers, and children through programs like Seeds for the Future family reforms. Family reformation is the key while compensating those affected.

Direct family-based reparations reverse economic systems based on unsustainable population growth and inequity—those that create wealth by fundamentally externalizing costs to others. They do so by robbing women and children of resources that would give children an ecosocial fair start in life and instead use children to create growth. Those who would be paying back the wealth they owe are now doubling down, creating hysteria around an idea that reduced fertility rates and degrowth are themselves a crisis, with key targets like Elon Musk (whose wealth was created through such externalization) even suggesting that child-free people should not be allowed to vote.

Such direct obligations and payments move beyond the governments that created the crisis, beyond an unfair, anthropocentric system of top-down coercion, and instead towards bottom-up empowerment. This is less about population and more about power, and whether each individual; has equity—or influence—in their political system (focusing on the relations between humans, and not just counting them). It is about whether individuals matter politically. Compensation is equity, and equity is freedom. Creating humans for economies rather than democracies is the opposite.

The extreme concentration of wealth at the top of the economic pyramid was created by externalizing its environmental and other costs—on the poor, future generations, and nonhuman animals—argues Nobel laureate Steven Chu, who served as the Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration. “Increased economic prosperity and all economic models supported by governments and global competitors are based on having more young people, workers, than older people,” Chu said in 2019. “Two schemes come to mind. One is the pyramid scheme. The other is the Ponzi scheme.”

In this case, “justice for all” means that the wealthy must pay for the damaging, externalized costs resulting from their acquisition of that wealth. But how do we ensure a fair process for calculating the costs, recovering the money, and getting it directly to young women, mothers, and children to counteract the effects of the crisis today? And what about tomorrow? The future can be protected through family planning entitlements that most effectively benefit the majority of people, including future generations. The decisions we make will impact the baseline for climate reparations (i.e., what exactly was lost and damaged) by billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

We must ensure that those who are least responsible for the climate crisis and economic inequality (i.e., future generations), do not suffer their greatest consequences. Otherwise, future generations will be the victims of a great injustice.

“The world needs a new model of how to generate a rising standard of living that’s not dependent on a pyramid scheme,” said Chu. We believe that the “Fair Start Model” is that model.

The Fair Start Model: Properly Addressing Population Ethics Means Achieving Equitable Opportunities for All

Population ethics is a complex field that the United Nations and world governments must properly address if future generations are to live sustainably in a planetary ecosystem that is not damaged beyond repair. Having meaningful and effective discussions with policymakers includes setting standards that deal with the moral, ethical, and scientific considerations surrounding population size—relative to levels of consumption, growth, and the distribution of resources.

More than a third of Nobel Laureates are calling family policies and consumption-relative population the key driver of the crises we face today. Establishing population standards would reduce the overhaul of climate activities and begin the process of climate reparations from those who have benefitted the most from economic activities that have damaged climate conditions. These payments can fund optimal democratic and biodiverse communities, those envisioned by thought leaders like Sir Partha Dasgupta, where people are empowered.

Human rights are the rules that put limits on what governments can do so that people can live free, and the basic requirement for all rules is that they be fair. The fundamental problem is that the human right to have and raise children in conditions (including sustainable resources) that meet their needs—which is the first and overriding rule because it accounts for our creation and fundamental power relations—has been disconnected from that fairness requirement. Requiring fairness would have cost the wealthiest what it takes to invest in all children, and prevented the profits that come with explosive growth,  This disconnect has benefitted a few at a great cost to many.

It is long past overdue to expose the truth and those who are hiding the truth, and urge them—and global policymakers—to change society’s course toward child-centric planning and development that adheres to fairness, justice for all, and human rights.

The Fair Start Model is an approach that 1) aims to provide every individual with an equal opportunity to lead a fulfilling life, and 2) treats this obligation as the first and overriding human right. It treats reproductive justice and freedom as occurring within the larger context of societal freedom, which starts with ecosocial birth equity. If governance derives from the people, then constitutionalism—or the limitation and decentralization of power—starts with the creation of relations, not written documents.

The Fair Start Model is based on five key principles:

  • Equitable opportunities: Every person, regardless of background or circumstance, must have access to resources, education, healthcare, and other essential services necessary for a fair start in life.
  • Sustainable population size: To ensure the long-term well-being of both current and future generations, society must consider the carrying capacity of the environment (i.e., natural resources) and support “eco-centric” (not “egocentric”) families to maintain sustainable population size, understanding that even large families in poor nations have less of an environmental impact than small families in rich nations.
  • Resource allocation: Allocating resources equitably among the population involves addressing disparities and ensuring that basic needs are met for everyone, while also considering individual differences, such as disabilities or other vulnerabilities, to ensure fairness.
  • Inter-generational equity: We must acknowledge the interdependence between present and future generations and emphasize the responsibility to ensure that the actions taken today do not compromise the well-being and opportunities of future generations. This consideration involves sustainable resource management, environmental conservation, and responsible reproductive choices.
  • Ethical considerations in reproduction: Population ethics must involve ethical deliberation regarding reproduction. While individual reproductive freedom is generally respected, we must take into account the collective impact of reproductive choices on the overall population, the environment, and future generations. Balancing individual autonomy with responsible decision-making is crucial in maintaining a fair and sustainable population. High-consumption families in the past have made it harder for young women to have children in safe conditions. That reality means that, as a society, we have fundamentally misunderstood the true meaning of “autonomy” because we did not ask families to limit their reproductive autonomy so that it could be enjoyed in perpetuity. As a comparison, this is like limiting time at a podium in a room with many speakers: Future speakers will have less time to speak if previous speakers do not take the time of future speakers into consideration.

The Assumption Behind All Theories of Freedom

John Rawls’ theory of freedom starts with the assumption that we become free when our obligations—like following the letter of the law—are justified. The Fair Start Model suggests a flaw in such theories of political obligation and freedom that has blocked just such a process.

The first and overriding obligation, from which others (like laws) are derived, must be existential rather than practical because “we are before we do.” Former theories did not derive from this fundamental origination. Hence they never developed an objective and this justifying standard, like ecosocial fairness, for our existence—relational in nature —which is the form of justice that precedes before justifying our actions.

If we are truly concerned with how to be relatively self-determining and less controlled by others, and have the capacity for consent or choice, we would logically start with deontological population ethics, and a creation norm/first principle and obligation that looks to create groups akin to 0123…0, with 0 being non-polity/non-humanity or nature, and self-determination for each being offset equally as new persons enter, up until division or subdivision is required. Nations can subdivide through federalism into states and local jurisdictions. Some would argue that corporations and clubs, etc. are subdivisions, so if we imagine we need many nations for all to have a voice, subdivision complicates this, whereas, for example, Catalan seceding from Spain is just division.

We would have to invest enough in the birth and development conditions of each person to achieve this outcome—with power flowing from the bottom upward. In other words, absolute self-determination among political equals is inverse to population growth and relative to a nonhuman world.

This axiom can expose the fact that many individuals and groups—hiding behind “private” families and family planning—do not want political equality, but would rather exploit children as economic inputs than invest in their being born and raised in conditions likely to make them highly educated, resilient and politically confident citizens that who challenge concentrations of wealth and power. The Fair Start Model still reserves a private right to have children to would-be parents, but it would be more limited—like the right to speak freely is (we can’t defame or incite violence, and we all get a turn, etc.), and be geared around birth equity. So there is still autonomy for the would-be parents but balanced against other interests.

As early as the middle of the 20th century, when international law was coming into true effect, family planning could have been determined by incentives and entitlements that ensured children’s ecosocial birth and development conditions. That did not happen. Instead, that money went to the top of the economic pyramid.

Family policies could have been determined by the presence of incentivizing and equalizing resources. In fact, they were hidden behind the idea of privacy. The Fair Start Model argues that one’s perspective on whether procreative decisions should be personal or interpersonal, private or public, should be influenced by a consideration of the climate.

Is there a way to see this more simply? Who do you have to be—minimally—to exist in a social contract and hence be free because you are willingly part of an enterprise? You have to be—minimally—“other-regarding” enough to ensure that family planning, as well as birth and development conditions, is consistent with the Children’s Rights Convention (particularly Articles 5, 6, 12, 13, 17, 19, 24, 26, 27, 28 31, 32, 34, 35, and 36)—interpreted as first requiring climate restoration via birth equity. This thinking aligns deference to majorities, with individual rights, by giving those rights to the future majority first and foremost as a fair start in life. To the extent that these things were in conflict and not aligned in the past, the opposition justified top-down governance (based on a lack of common trust) rather than relative self-governance.

Why should we trust one another if we accepted a system that was fundamentally unfair? The easiest way is to say that democracy and social contracts, or any form of consensual cooperation, require trust. It is hard to be trustful when you have not been treated fairly, and without a fair start in life, something which is now not part of how we are created.

Some theories of political obligation, having to comply with the law, require that everyone who participates in a reasonably just, mutually beneficial cooperative practice—philosopher H.L.A. Hart’s “joint enterprise according to rules”—has an obligation to bear a fair share of the burdens of the practice. Understandings of what constitutes “fairness” are where political theories frequently diverge. The contingent obligation may be, according to some, owed to the others who cooperate in the enterprise, for cooperation is what makes it possible for any individual to enjoy the benefits of the practice. Thus, the obligation is contingent on the capacity to participate, which is and should be contingent on the norms which account for our creation.

Those norms would not crowd speakers out of getting meaningful time at the podium; rather, they would make sure we respect each other enough as equals to listen, and we would be surrounded by ecologies not already determined by others—like Exxon destroying our climate—so that very idea of “relative self-determination” makes sense. This is a claim that is driven home in the recent film Artifice Girl, a story about what we owe—in the act of creation—to AI that might develop a capacity for autonomy.

In other words, to properly assess costs and benefits, we have to first become groups of people capable of doing so in a way that is inclusive and reflective of the group constituents (the very thing implied by the preambles to constitutions and international covenants). Those who refuse to give children an ecosocial fair start in life as the first and overriding human right are opting to leave the resources there, undercut their claims, risk millions, and undercut U.S. national security.

It is better to use things like climate reparations to fund equity than to react to disempowerment in violent ways (and maybe because inequity is backed by legal systems that rely on and legitimize violence), the way some have and will, hitting innocent victims rather than those who benefited from the disempowerment.

Divided Perspectives: The Controversy Surrounding Climate Reparations

Climate reparations (or climate justice) refer to the concept of compensating communities and countries that have been disproportionately affected by climate change and its impacts. The idea is rooted in the recognition that historical emissions and unsustainable practices of developed nations have contributed significantly to climate change, while vulnerable communities and countries that did little to contribute to the crisis bear the brunt of its consequences.

While the concept of climate reparations has gained traction and support from various organizations and advocates, not everyone is on board.

We suggest several reasons for this divide:

  • Disagreements on Responsibility: Some argue that assigning blame and responsibility for climate change is complex and that the historical emissions of developed countries alone do not contribute solely to the consequences of climate change. No doubt they have contributed significantly to the damage.
  • Economic Concerns: Implementing climate reparations requires significant financial resources—a cause for concern for many countries and individuals—which many feel they do not owe and see as an unfair burden.
  • Political Challenges: Climate reparations involve global cooperation and agreement, which can be challenging to achieve. Negotiating and implementing a fair and equitable system of reparations would require consensus among nations with diverse economic interests and priorities.
  • Resistance to Change: Some individuals and organizations may be resistant to the idea of climate reparations due to ideological or political reasons. They may oppose the redistribution of wealth or view it as an unfair burden on their own countries or communities.

Despite the disagreements, it is essential to recognize the urgent need for action on climate change and the disproportionate impacts it has on vulnerable communities. While the specific mechanisms and approaches for climate reparations may vary, the overall goal is to ensure fairness, justice, and support for those who have been most affected.

Ultimately, finding common ground and fostering dialogue among stakeholders is crucial to developing effective climate justice frameworks and achieving a sustainable and just future for all. This is what the Fair Start Model does.

Leveling the Playing Field: The Importance of Birth Equity in the Fair Start Model

The Fair Start Model advocates birth equity because the circumstances into which individuals are born can significantly impact their life outcomes. Birth equity refers to ensuring that all children—regardless of their background or socioeconomic status—have an equal opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential from the moment they are born.

By advocating for birth equity, the Fair Start Model addresses the disparities and inequities that exist among children and prevents every child from having a fair start in life.

Birth equity aligns with the principles of social justice and equal opportunity. It recognizes that some individuals and communities face systemic disadvantages and barriers that hinder their ability to provide their children with optimal conditions for growth and development. By advocating policies and initiatives that promote birth equity, the Fair Start Model seeks to level the playing field and ensure that every child has a fair start in life.

By prioritizing birth equity, the Fair Start Model strives to create a society in which all children have access to essential resources and opportunities that support their physical, cognitive, and emotional development. That is why we support RAFUG’s Seed for Future (Uganda) Project and seek to partner with the Golden Love and Hands of Hope Foundation on the Seeds for Africa (Nigeria) Project.

Ultimately, the Fair Start Model recognizes that birth equity is not just a matter of fairness, but also a crucial step toward building a more equitable and just society and helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. By addressing disparities early in life, the Fair Start Model seeks to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, improve overall health outcomes, empower individuals to reach their full potential (regardless of their circumstances at birth) and help protect the climate world.

Questions to Identify Those Who Reject Equity 

What is your stance on the basic connection between children being born, and things like child welfare, the climate crisis, animal rights, or anything else you might claim to care about? Does your answer prohibit violations of children’s rights?

In the answers given, we will be looking for an inversion related to growth, evidence of an intent to actually empower people as they enter the world, taking democracy seriously, and considering non-Eurocentric instances of democracy that might have been more inclusive than their later counterparts.

In the Fair Start Model, the best response to climate change starts with using an alternative version of social justice that does not use future generations to convert the nonhuman world into wealth for a few. This idea of justice does not ignore our day-to-day relations and how they are determined by our birth position but flows from a place of bottom-up vulnerability, not strength.

While some inquiries into climate justice and social equity focus on the idea of population we can think of these matters as the relations between people as they are created. Humans are defined by their relations and obligations to others, and our birth position, in terms of nationality or class, largely defines our impact on the ecologies we all share and our disparate influence in our relations with one another.

If you are empowered at all—as part of the source of legitimate government and sovereignty—then the first question you ask is: “Are children being born into the world because they will have fundamental power over me in every sense, politically from the governance, and daily in their impact (impact which largely depends on nationality and class, as cited above)?” You will limit the power of others at the base, and not accept obligations to follow rules in a system that does not allow me to limit and consent to that power, so that you are objectively (mathematically) obligated, based on deriving back all the way to the most fundamental obligation. Free people will condition compliance with the law on that norm empowering them.

Bending from Growth to Justice and Relative Self-Determination

This gives us a formula (which qualifies at least as a provisional baseline for climate reparations) to determine, qualitatively, optimal population ranges, and the method to achieve them: Shift unjust concentrations of wealth and power, built by not having to pay the costs of ensuring birth and development conditions consistent with the Children’s Rights Convention (CRC), towards funding all children with equal opportunities in life and a natural, biodiverse environment. The CRC is a standard because it tells us who, minimally, we should be. And the formula above applies to any grouping of people, from states to companies, to clubs, to spontaneous gatherings.

Funding, resources, and incentives, should have been the factors in determining family planning behaviors for the last century or so, and had it been, we could have evaded climate disasters and other crises we face today. Instead, we lived under a system of growth economics that created many people raised in inequitable conditions for shopping malls, rather than investing in them as equal members of a town hall; i.e., creating consumers, not citizens. This is the fountainhead of what some call the economization of life.

What are the practical ramifications of all of this? As “climate loss and damage” reparation formulas are assessed, we should correct this flaw and use true relative self-determination as the baseline—a move that could increase what wealthy countries owe by trillions of dollars. Moreover, correcting this mistake ensures that we can override current property rights to ensure that all children get enough of what they need in order to physically compromise legitimate democracies, capable of actually and fairly assigning property rights. That comes first. No theory of obligation to follow the law works unless it accounts for the creation of just power relations, and all power relations are fundamentally created at birth. Overconsumption (the power of wealth) relative to population size is the issue, rather than population alone.

Moving wealth into family-based reparations catalyzes the trend that is already having the greatest impact on the climate crisis and our chance for a better future—women choosing smaller families or a child-free life. This is a sea-change in our species and how we relate to our ecologies, and despite the best attempts of those at the head of the economic pyramid to resist, this change is here and something we can accelerate.

Do we need official governing processes like the United Nations, or Congress, to authorize this wealth transition? Thinking so commits the fallacy described above: that governmental authority derives from a prior obligation to ensure the capacity to participate. Many individuals are already disclaiming property rights to portions of their wealth in favor of family planning entitlements and will target concentrations of wealth and corrupt politicians to do the same. They should do so nonviolently, but be aware that acts of mass violence may very well arise from the same sense of disempowerment, and just be directed at the wrong targets rather than those who actually benefited from fundamental injustice.

The “FamScam”

When this research was brought to wealthy funders in the animal rights space—who would have been obligated to help pay to correct the mistake and would have been potentially liable for years of greenwashing under the standard (the climate crisis means their claims of being green, sustainable, humane, eco-friendly, etc., were false)—they ignored it, then quietly backed the elimination of litigation that was designed to correct the mistake. They blocked the solution, for their own benefit, at a deadly cost to others.

They did this while many organizations—including the ones they were funding—were simply filling the public domain with fundraising noise designed around low-impact campaigns that did not threaten the fundamental power structure.

Their reaction mimics other concentrations of wealth and power—like the editor of the New York Times—who appear to want to further liberal values while quietly undoing them with family policy to maintain their position. A peremptory norm that would avert the birth of billions of people because we have new and expensive obligations to anyone born has ramifications for nonhumans that makes iconic animal rights battles, like Proposition 12, look fairly irrelevant.

How can we possibly think we are protecting animals while ignoring the creation of humans who will harm them? Organizations avoid this issue because it is hard to navigate since they do not make the connections above, or because they don’t really believe in justice and they can make money on low-impact and less risky campaigns instead by relying on donor ignorance.

It’s bad enough to not do what one says, but skewing the baseline and process for climate reparations, by ignoring a right to nature and equal opportunity as the basis to judge what the climate crisis cost us, risks a grand injustice. Humans face the climate crisis because we did not recognize exactly who we should be—minimally, in order to be free. Future generations deserve a world in which that mistake is corrected, and those who benefited from the mistake must pay the amount they benefitted.

One concrete tactic to do this is through greenwashing litigation, challenging humane, environmental, ESG, DEIJ, and other value-based claims. Misleading claims in this area obfuscated the impacts companies, media, and nonprofits (some of which intentionally hid basic obligations that would have shown they were knowingly undoing their own claims) were having, forestalling reforms and risking millions of innocent lives. Suing the bad actors can bring forth the truth, and enable things like truly green certification systems, and family-based climate reparations. Using the Fair Start Model—and nurturing critical discourse about actually distributing power to constitute democracy—is one standard for this important and essential work. It requires climate restoration and biodiversity and accounts for empowering children to thrive by improving their birth and development conditions.

It demands these things as the first peremptory norm under international law, and can thus ensure a fundamental truth and reconciliation process for the climate crisis that actually compensates the victims directly. It may also reduce growing acts of mass shootings and other violence, which may be unfolding as many feel keenly disempowered.

We will also be outing those described above who were involved in hiding the research—including research that showed their own fundamental mistakes and liability—and moving the goalposts for what nature and freedom mean. Doing so skews the baseline for compensating future generations for the climate crisis by making it seem that the anthropocentric standard that caused the climate crisis is the only standard available. That skewing also hides the idea that truly free persons will make their obligation to follow the law on being empowered to control it, and with it, the influence others—like Exxon—have over them, and over their children.

We are urging those who care about basic justice to help make examples of those blocking these truths, publicly urging them to use their massive wealth—in dozens of effective ways—to bend the arc of who we are becoming towards being just and empowered people. If they do not believe in a coherent system of political obligation that accurately assesses costs and benefits, it’s unclear why they should deserve its benefits and protections.The Fair Start Movement is the story of—and solution for—this struggle.

Mwesigye Robert

Mwesigye Robert is the founder of Rejoice Africa Foundation.

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