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I Guess Imperialism and Colonialism Never Happened

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One of the many people who owe the West for all the benefits of colonialism and climate change

Cass Sunstein said some no good, very bad things in his article rejecting the idea of climate reparations for poor nations. Now, one can wonder why a major figure felt the need to repudiate an idea that is never going to come to fruition anyway. And one can also suggest that climate reparations are probably not a very workable idea, to some extent for reasons Sunstein suggests. But then Sunstein decides to tell these poor nations that, despite this tiny problem of climate change, the West has brought them so much and made their lives so much better!

Their contention is that rich nations, which created the problem of climate change, have an obligation to fix it, not least by providing compensation for the high costs that, in their view, global warming has already imposed. Their argument adds that rich countries have gotten rich as a result of cheap energy (mostly coal); poor countries should be paid if they are to be deprived of the same opportunity.

That isn’t entirely crazy, but like other arguments for reparations, it runs into serious objections. For one thing, it depends on notions of collective responsibility. Most people in wealthy nations — whether rich or poor, or whether American or British or German — did not intend, and are not personally responsible for, the harms faced by citizens of India. Are they nonetheless obliged to pay reparations?

The corrective justice argument also conflates current generations with past generations. Much of the current “stock” of greenhouse gas emissions was produced by the actions of people who are now dead. The median American was born in 1979. How, exactly, does he or she owe reparations to people now suffering from warmer climates in India, Vietnam or Bangladesh?

It’s nice of Sunstein to copy the arguments of conservatives talking about it was their ancestors who owned slaves so what do we have to do with racial inequality today? Yes, the people of Britain and Germany might not have personally burned the coal that is leading to the inundation of Bangladesh–but they are sure benefiting from it in their rich nation society. The same for dead Germans and English and Americans. So this is a shockingly stupid argument. But it gets worse.

There is a subtler problem. Through industrial activity, trade, and technology, rich countries have conferred big benefits on poor ones, not least in the form of improved health and opportunity. Consider the recent response to the Ebola crisis, life-saving medical innovations or the dissemination of cell phones throughout the world.

A full accounting might require poor countries to pay the rich ones back for those benefits. No one in rich nations is asking for any form of restitution. (And they shouldn’t.) But if we are really interested in measuring who has helped and hurt whom, a claim for reparations puts the issue on the table.

So…… Rich nations have provided nothing but benefits to poor nations and maybe those poor nations should pay back rich nations for those benefits? I mean, sure 10-11 million slaves were taken from west Africa between 1500-1800, but some Nigerians owe us today because they use cell phone technology developed in the United States! And hey, sure the British let Indians starve during El Niño-induced famines in order that they maintained the proper level of exports back to the home country, but they also now speak English and call work in call centers! What gifts we have brought them!!! And let’s not forget the enormous debt the people of Congo owe the Belgians!

And certainly it’s quite clear that even though the U.S. blasted their Pacific island colonies after World War II with nuclear weapons and today those islands are disappearing because of climate change, the people who live actually owe us because they have television and sliced bread.

How did an article like this get through the editing process? Or is Cass Sunstein now like Niall Ferguson and can say any old horrifying thing with impunity because of who he is?

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