Why We Owe So Much to Victims of Disaster: At the G8 Summit, Brown and Blair Should Think of Our Debts to Africans, Not Theirs to Us. We Have Stolen Their Share of the Planet's Resources

Article excerpt

If you want to know how to tackle global warming, try the simple wisdom of Wilkins Micawber in Dickens's David Copperfield. "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness," he said. "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

It is rarely understood this way, but climate change is really a problem of debt. Not a cash debt, but an ecological one. Environmentally, we're living way beyond our means, spending more than the bank of the earth and the atmosphere can replace in our accounts. It is this debt--not the hole in the nation's public spending plans--that ought to have been the subject of the election campaign. And it is this debt--not the financial debts of poor nations to rich--that should guide the thinking of the Chancellor and other western leaders as they approach the G8 summit in July.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have set Africa and global warming as the summit's key themes. Yet newly released documents reveal one of the government's more embarrassing oversights. It was agreed at an international summit, more than three years ago, to create a special pot of money to help poor countries cope with climate change. Britain, alone among major European aid donors, has failed to contribute to the "Least Developed Countries Fund".

For years, we have been pilfering from the natural resource accounts of the rest of the world. When the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America decide they want to spend their fair share of nature's equity, either it won't be there or we could be on the verge of a crash in its already overstretched banking system. If the whole world wanted to live like people in the UK, we would need the natural resources of three more planets. If the US were the model, we would need five.

It's not just that we owe these countries for our profligate use of the planet's resources. It is also that they suffer the worst effects of our overuse. The most vulnerable people in the poorest countries--particularly children and women--are in effect paying the interest on our ecological debts. According to the World Disasters Report, the number of mostly climate-related disasters rose from just over 400 a year in 1994-98 to more than 700 a year in 1999-2003, with the biggest rise in the poorest countries.

The sight of a Mozambican woman giving birth in a tree during the great storms of 2000 is seared into the world's consciousness. Mozambique was desperately poor and burdened with debt payments. The floods were the worst for 150 years. Not only had its potential to develop been mismanaged by western creditors, Mozambique was left more vulnerable because it had to choose between preparing for disasters or spending its meagre resources on health and education. Now, in a warming world, Africa's rainfall, so crucial to its farming, is about to become even more erratic.

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The story is similar outside Africa. In the mid- to late 1990s, at the height of the Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation campaign, nearly half the Jamaican government's spending went on debt service. The island is rich in natural resources, but it was getting harder for it to earn a living from exporting crops such as sugar and bananas. Yet, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the money available for social programmes in Jamaica was halved.

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Angela Stultz-Crawle, a local woman who ran a project in Bennetlands, Kingston to provide basic health and education services, saw the consequences at first hand: reductions in health programmes, in education, in road repairs, in lights. "Just walking around," she said, "you see people living in dirt yards, scrap-board houses. It is repaying. Every day you hear the government come out and say, 'Oh, we have met our IMF deadlines, we have paid,' and everyone claps." Again, Jamaica is particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather that climate change will make more frequent. …