Climate Debt is a concept that was submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change by over 50 of the world’s most economically and ecologically vulnerable countries, led by Bolivia, in 2009.1 To recognise this debt requires compensation from developed nations to address legacies of resource plunder and atmospheric harm. In the middle of last century Hannah Arendt recalled poet Rene Char’s words; “our inheritance was left to us by no testament” (1946).2 Arendt was writing in the aftermath of World War II, while with the present rise of new weather, we are also ‘without testament’, or, as Arendt resolved the metaphor, without tradition or continuity. Yet developed countries are in debt, for a more-than-fair share of carbon consumption.3 Oral testimony about the exhaustion of resources, extinction events, air pollution and ‘extractivism’ lives in indigenous knowledge-systems, as well as within two hundred years of European environmentalism, but a failure of political memory allows neglect of the fate of the human and non-human inheritors of the biosphere. Arendt’s recognition that we “act into nature as we used to act into history,” was never more prescient. On the one hand neo-liberal economies toy with intended decarbonisation to mitigate climate change while maintaining freedom to profit from the earth’s resources through quasi-decisions.4 On the other, in the ‘tropic of chaos’5 drought and storms rage in convergence with poverty and struggles over resources. During COP 21, Bangladesh, alongside other countries which under-contribute to global warming, called for deep emission reductions from developed nations to address an out-of-balance historical climate debt and high per-capita emissions. This call went largely ignored. The dominant political regimes are still in a state where, in Arendt’s words, […] “there is no mind to inherit and to question, to think about and to remember.”6

Defined by Janine Randerson
1. As a concept, ecological debt was first discussed by Fidel Castro during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Castro superposed the external financial debt against the ecological depredation of southern coun- tries to the benefit of northern consumption.

2. See Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Viking, 1961).

3. Bishop Theotonius Gomes, ‘Time for Rich Countries to Pay Their Ecological Debt,’ The Diplomat, 9 October 2015.

4. Bruno Latour, On Sensitivity Arts, Science and Politics in the New Climatic Regime (lecture, Melbourne University, 2016).

5. See Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos (New York: Nation Books, 2011).

6. Arendt, 1961