The idea that polluters should pay reparations for climate change is gaining steam among advocates. 

Some environmentalists and academics argue the companies or states that are most significantly contributing to the climate crisis should be made to compensate the people bearing the brunt of its impacts. 

Advocates have been calling for such reparations for years, especially since evidence emerged that fossil fuel companies were aware of the impact of carbon emissions. But the idea is now more practically achievable due to scientific advances, said Adrien Salazar, policy director at the nonprofit Grassroots Global Justice. 

He pointed to the increased sophistication of diagnostic techniques such as “attribution science, a rapidly developing field that says when this disaster happens, how much of this is attributed to the climate crisis [and] to the fact that humans have had an impact on the atmosphere.” 

Those developments, he said, are going to “help identify with quite some clarity who is responsible for climate pollution and how much going into the future.”  

Some advocates for reparations are making specific practical calculations of what they believe is owed. Last week, an analysis published in OneEarth concluded that fossil fuel companies including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron collectively owe $209 billion a year in restitution for the cumulative climate disasters expected to take place by midcentury.  

Co-author Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute told The Hill the calculations used data reported by the companies to project their emissions. 

“So we can [determine] the estimated emissions from the operational emissions for each company,” Heede said. ”Most of the emissions we attribute to the companies are from consumers using their products as intended.”  

The paper identifies the state-owned Saudi Aramco as owing the most to affected parties, at $42.7 billion a year, followed by Russia’s GazProm with $20.1 billion, ExxonMobil with $18.4 billion, Shell with $16.3 billion, BP with $14.5 billion and Chevron with $12.8 billion. The Hill has reached out to the companies for comment. 

But ultimately, Heede said, the numbers are only the authors’ best guess, and can’t predict the exact costs of the individual disasters climate change will cause or intensify over the decades ahead, nor of hazards such as extreme heat and smoke inhalation. 

Other proponents of climate reparations are less focused on the calculations of dollar amounts based on the emissions of individual polluters, and more on the broader political concern of developed nations’ accountability to developing ones.  

“The idea is that you are redistributing in a way that takes political responsibility in a way broader than just emissions,” said Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University who has written in favor of climate reparations. “It’s not just the case that high emitters should pay more but there’s an effort to connect it to a broader history of colonialism.” 

Last year at the COP27 international climate summit, world leaders struck a deal on a so-called loss-and-damages fund long requested by the countries on the front lines of climate change. The fund would provide monetary assistance to the nations most impacted by climate change. Details, including which countries will contribute and how the funds will be distributed, are still under discussion.   

However, that fund is distinct from reparations in one key aspect, according to Salazar.  

While he described the loss-and-damages agreement as “a major victory,” he noted that during negotiations, states including the U.S. and the European Union stipulated that it would not be considered compensatory or involve wealthier countries assuming responsibility for climate change.  

“Reparations are meant to morally address that as well as materially address it,” he said, whereas the loss-and-damages fund was “designed intentionally not to be fully reparatory and [to] absolve countries of legal responsibility.”  

Loss-and-damages funds are also far narrower in scope and purpose than a broader reparations program would be, according to Karim Ahmed, a director at the Global Council for Science and the Environment and co-author of a paper arguing for climate reparations in the journal Health and Human Rights.  

“Reparations includes the concept of future loss and damage that might occur, and also includes the idea of not just loss and damage but also adaptation and resilience,” such as for low-lying and island states, Ahmed told The Hill. 

There are also various perspectives on who should pay for reparations, Ahmed added, noting that the possibilities include the private sector in general, fossil fuel companies specifically or federal governments. In 2021, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), introduced legislation that would have required the largest U.S. fossil fuel companies to pay into a fund to finance climate mitigation efforts, with each company’s contribution being based on a percentage of its global emissions. Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley has similarly proposed a tax on fossil fuel production whose proceeds would be put toward an international fund. 

Heede identified Van Hollen’s bill as a potential model for a reparations program, while Salazar cited the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, which requires at least 40 percent of the benefits from certain federal environmental programs to be directed toward disadvantaged communities. 

Even among those who acknowledge the climate crisis, however, not everybody is fully sold on the idea that climate reparations are the most effective way to address the impacts on the most affected populations. Friederike Otto, a climatologist at Oxford University, has argued that while reparations are ethically justified, they are not an alternative to active mitigation of emissions. 

A more effective way to confront the problem “would be if countries of the global North would seriously mitigate at home,” Otto told The Hill in an email.  

“We need to rapidly transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, but must also address broader inequalities that make some people more vulnerable to climate change impacts,” she added. “That means not kicking the can down the road any longer but implementing everything we know that needs to be implemented (no private cars in cities, no new fossil infrastructure, no further destruction of health care and social security systems but investing in it…) and stop keeping barriers up for citizens of global South countries to participate in a global society.”  

Ultimately, Táíwò said, the financial mechanisms used to determine who pays and how much may be of secondary importance to the outcomes.   

“You want cash, you want technology and you want adaptive capacity to flow from the countries that are getting the lion’s share of the benefits to the countries that are getting the lion’s share of the burdens,” he said. “There’s a case for being a little more ruthlessly pragmatic and a little less obsessed with the calculations of who owes what.”