Reparations recently made the news after the COP27, with poorer countries demanding richer countries pay for damages caused by global warming. But, are reparations the best way to achieve justice for previous harms, and what do they tell us about moral responsibility?

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries developed and industrialised without many (or any) regulations. Coal burning factories produced new technologies, new agricultural practices led to chemical runoff and land clearing, and global trade and travel have accelerated the production of man-made greenhouse gases. Historically, developed countries have contributed to just under 80% of total carbon emissions.

As a result, devastating floods, bush fires, droughts and storms have ruinous impacts on communities and countries. Rising sea levels threaten small island nations and coastal towns alike. The countries and populations feeling the biggest impacts tend to be poorer and have fewer resources to deal with the fallout of climate related catastrophes.

Climate change is a global issue, and it’s clearly impacting poorer, less developed countries in more drastic ways than wealthier ones. Can reparations really be a solution to such a complex issue?

What are reparations?  

Reparations are usually monetary (or something else that transfers wealth, like land) compensation, paid by a dominant group to an individual or a group that has been wronged or harmed. Reparations are usually viewed as one mechanism for remedying a past injustice. Given past injustices have created present-day inequalities and much of this inequality is socioeconomic, reparations are one way to make amends and “even the playing field.

The controversy surrounding reparations

Reparations become controversial when we overlay our common conceptions of moral responsibility. We typically view someone as morally responsible for something if they caused that thing to happen. For example, if you steal something from a store and are fully aware and in control of yourself, most people would view you as morally responsible for that action, and therefore deserving of the repercussions that come from stealing.

But, who is morally responsible for the global climate crisis? European countries have some of the most progressive climate change policies in the world today, but were responsible for the majority of emissions during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the other hand, China and India haven’t historically been big emitters, but today they are. It’s unclear who is more responsible for the state of the climate today. So, if we can’t find someone or some group directly morally responsible, should reparations be paid at all?

The case for reparations

There are two main reasons why I think our common notion of moral responsibility translates into a good enough argument in favour of reparations.

Firstly, we need to think about what inequality looks like in the world. Much of the inequality that we can observe is economic, and it is often the direct result of past injustices.

If we truly want to live in a just world, we are going to need to level the playing field, and money is one of the most effective ways to do that.

The question is: where should this money come from? Whether or not someone from a dominant group actively participated in or committed one of these wrongs, they likely experienced either direct or indirect benefits.

For example, industrialised countries have benefited from the use of fossil fuels, and generated their wealth through manufacturing and trade, which compounded over decades and centuries. To the extent that individuals and groups today have benefited from past injustices, then they owe some reparations to the groups that are disadvantaged because of those past injustices. Wealthy countries, therefore, that have compounded wealth that came from industrialising during a time where carbon emissions remained unchecked should pay reparations, even though none of the people alive today actively contributed to the climate emissions of the past.

Second, reparations acknowledge that the payer has some responsibility for the wrongs committed towards the payee. As former prime minister Scott Morrison said about $280 million of reparations that Aboriginal communities received in 2017, “This is a long-called-for step… to say formally not just that we’re deeply sorry for what happened, but that we will take responsibility for it”. Paying reparations acknowledges that harm occurred to a group of people because it recognises that there is lasting inequality that has occurred from that harm. In addition, the person or group paying the reparations recognises that they have benefitted from the harm or inequality, even if they didn’t directly cause it.

While reparations don’t promise to remove all inequality or solve every injustice, they are an important step for dominant groups to acknowledge and accept responsibility for harms of the past, as well as taking an important step to close present socioeconomic gaps.