In This Episode
This week on Hot Take, Mary and Amy talk to Abrahm Lustgarten about how colonialism, both in the past and the present, put the weight of the climate crisis on the shoulders of the people who did the least to create it. As a lens, they use Abrahm’s Propublica investigation of Barbados’ (and other Caribbean nations) attempt to navigate the intersection of climate change and debt. This conversation was taped on the anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Ida, during devastating floods in Pakistan and Jackson, Mississippi.
Here are a few places you can go to contribute to the relief efforts in Jackson, Mississippi and Pakistan:
Mary Annaïse Heglar Hey, hotcakes, it’s Mary. I just wanted to come in with a quick update about events on the ground in Jackson, Mississippi, and in Pakistan. We recorded this week’s episode on Monday and well, things have changed a bit since then, so we wanted to come in with new information and ways that you can help. So on Monday, after a summer of unprecedented rain, Jackson, Mississippi faced some serious flooding threats from the Pearl River. And while the city might have avoided the worst of the flood waters, the flood did take out a major water treatment plant, and it left the majority black city of about 150,000 people without running water. Now, that means no water to drink, no water to bathe in, no water to brush your teeth with. This is life threatening stuff and it’s a chronic problem and it was decades in the making. So this is what happens when climate change plays out on top of systemic environmental racism. And of course, climate change is the ultimate result of environmental racism. And we’re going to talk more about that on next week’s show. So while the city has made improvements, people are still in dire straits. And this is a chronic problem that is going to take big investments to fix. To that end, if you are able, I urge you to donate to the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, which is aiming to raise the funds for a long term solution. You can also donate to Cooperation Jackson, which is doing great work on the ground pretty much all the time and is doing water aid work right now. The links to donate are in our shownotes. This is personal to me as a mississippian and I want to remind folks that this Democratic Party that everyone is always being asked to vote for if they want any kind of human rights. It was molded by black southerners, especially black Mississippians. We went not half, half the democracy that we have today, if it were not for them. They need you now. Show up. In Pakistan, the floods were ignited by what the United Nations officials have called monsoons on steroids, which brought the heaviest rain in living human memory. Pakistan is home to the world’s hottest city so far, and now it is. That city is under water. In fact, the floods have been so powerful they’ve created a 100 kilometer inland lake. The death toll is over 1100. And more than 3500 have been injured and more than 33 million have been affected. A third of the country is under water. And while there’s been some talk about the incompetence of the Pakistani government contributing to the chaos, I want to underscore what Amy said in this week’s recording. Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global warming pollution. So if you’re someone in the global north, the government incompetence in Pakistan is frankly none of your business. And we need to rally around helping the people of Pakistan who absolutely do not deserve what is happening to them. No one does. In our show notes, we have links to three fund raisers that we trust. Please go to the show notes and donate. Please help people.
Amy Westervelt Hey, hot cakes. Welcome to Hot Take. I’m Amy Westervelt.
Mary Annaïse Heglar And I’m Mary Annaïse Heglar. We are talking on the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the first anniversary of Hurricane Ida. So it’s a pretty somber day. Yeah, especially if you’re in the in the Gulf South. But honestly, I kind of I feel like today should just be a day of mourning and remembrance. It should just be a pay day off. I’m sorry. I really do think that. And it’s also on a day where Jackson, Mississippi, is flooding. I just read that the worst expectations of the flood were averted, but it’s still pretty serious. And I think that’s pretty important to remember because Mississippi is often written out of the Katrina story. So, yeah, my my heart is with Jackson today as much as it is with New Orleans and the victims of Katrina and Ida.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. I was reading a story earlier that the headline on CNN was just “Get Out Now!: Mayor Urges Residents to flee ahead of rising river waters in Mississippi.” And I was like, Oh, no.
Mary Annaïse Heglar And the thing is, is Jackson is not on the Mississippi River. Like, I think when people think of Mississippi flooding, they think of the Mississippi River because it’s such a huge river. But this is the Pearl River, you know, which which feeds into the Mississippi River, and can definitely flood. But yeah, just a little bit of geography for for folks who aren’t familiar.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. We’re also talking in the aftermath of record setting monsoons in Pakistan that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed over a thousand.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Wow.
Amy Westervelt With with the death toll still rising, it’s very, very scary and will absolutely lead to a major refugee crisis.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Yeah.
Amy Westervelt And I think a lot of people forget about this because I feel like any time we’re talking about Pakistan is because of the heat there. But Pakistan is second only to Antarctica in the number of glaciers that it has.
Mary Annaïse Heglar What?
Amy Westervelt A big part. Yes. Yes. And a big part of the flooding that we’re seeing is not just this huge monsoon that hit, but also the fact that you had such severe glacial melting because of the heat wave earlier this summer. So, again, these compounding crises just layered on top of each other.
Mary Annaïse Heglar I am learning that in this moment right now.
Amy Westervelt Isn’t that crazy. I know. Yeah. Yes.
Mary Annaïse Heglar I just don’t think of glaciers and the equator as being in the same place.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar But that goes to show what I know. And also there is the heat wave in China is the worst heat wave ever in human history.
Amy Westervelt Over 70 days. That is insane. I just am like an and you know, it was one of those things where there was not a lot of media coverage happening. Some folks are saying that’s because the government in China was trying to sort of keep a lid on it. And the story of the heat wave kind of got broken by meteorologists who were just looking at satellites going like, ugh, has anyone noticed that China’s like on fire? You know, it’s it’s just several, several days, months now of extreme heat. This it’s yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar You know sure they might have a bigger carbon footprint now but look at what’s happening to them right now is not the result of their carbon footprint. And I know Paxman and Ethan in India are very different countries. I don’t mean to like lump them together, but like, right. What’s happening in the Indian subcontinent? What’s happening in China is the result of the industrial revolution and of Europe and America. It is not the result of their parts.
Amy Westervelt Correct, though? That is correct. Yeah. Just to put it in perspective, Pakistan responsible for less than 1% of emissions. So like this is this is kind of what we’re talking about in today’s episode, actually, is this this problem of colonialism and especially as it intersects with climate.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. And meanwhile, the hurricane season is ramping up, too. They’re predicting storms this weekend. Wait, is that true?
Amy Westervelt That’s true in the Atlantic? Yes. I’m sorry to tell you.
Mary Annaïse Heglar And and meanwhile, the hurricane season is entering, you know, the high anxiety periods. The Gulf still hasn’t recovered from Katrina, let alone Ida and all the other storms in between, because, you know, climate sacrifice zones exist in the U.S., too. And today we’re going to talk about how that happened in the first place. We’re going to be talking about climate, colonialism.
Amy Westervelt That’s right. And I think we’re both super, super excited about our guest today, investigative journalist Abrahm Lustgarten. He works with Propublica and The New York Times and he just did like a really awesome story where he profiled the Barbadian prime minister and her quest to get a handle on the debt that colonialism has imposed on Barbados, especially as they brace for further climate impacts which are imminent.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Absolutely. And just a little a warning to our listeners. The first half of this episode is definitely going to be Amy gushing over how he was able to synthesize so much information into really compelling prose.
Amy Westervelt It’s so impressive. Oh, I’m so impressed. So, yes.
Mary Annaïse Heglar She’s going to fangirl and she’s going to fangirl hard. But also the story is really amazing and I really recommend that all of our listeners go out and read it. It’s really thorough and there’s definitely no way we’re going to get to everything that he covered in the story, but we might try.
Amy Westervelt That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. So with that, we’re excited to get this conversation started. And I think it’s time.
Mary Annaïse Heglar It’s time to talk about climate.
Amy Westervelt Abrahm Lustgarten, welcome to Hot Take. Thank you so much for being here.
Abrahm Lustgarten Hi there. Thanks for having me.
Amy Westervelt Okay. Before we get started on on anything else, I have to just say, how did you take all that information and synthesize it into one good story? I’m so jealous. Such a such a master. A master of your craft, sir. Yeah. That Barbados story was amazing.
Mary Annaïse Heglar She’s going to do this for a lot, Abrahm. She’s gonna do it a lot.
Abrahm Lustgarten You’re too kind. The key is to take twice as much time as your editors allow you to.
Amy Westervelt *Laughs*
Mary Annaïse Heglar How long did it take actually? Because that story is really thorough and we’re going to get into the details. But just as a writer, I don’t know how much how many interviews you did, how many, you know, trips you took, how much research you did, and then to put it into a story. How long did it take?
Abrahm Lustgarten So I probably shouldn’t admit this publicly that that story took almost a year to complete. But for lots of complex reasons that weren’t all because of the reporting or the journalism. It was a crazy, busy time in my life. And then COVID made travel really difficult. And we had a couple I had a couple of trips that were canceled. But the biggest hurdle was, as you’re sort of alluding to, trying to wrap my head around the financial side of it. And that was just like studying and studying over again and again until I felt like I understood it enough to build a story off of it or even do interviews about it or criticize anybody, let alone, you know, an institution as big as is the IMF. So that was just a sort of a painful, repetitive learning process.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’m. I’m so glad that you did it, because I think that I keep hearing from a lot of climate folks. You know, the finance sector is the place that everybody should be focusing now. But I think a lot of climate reporters, myself included in this, too, like are a little bit I’ve always kind of avoided finance stories for exactly that reason. So it’s a really good reason. Yeah, it’s a really good reason. Yeah. Yeah. I think we all need to do more of it because it is the thing that or at least I think that is very, very much having an influence on all of these policies and impacts.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. Yeah. So you’re like, we’re talking about you did this really impressive story about Barbados and the prime minister’s efforts to get the country out of its dual crises of climate and debt. But while I was reading it, my main question was and I don’t even care if this is a stupid question, is this the same bar battles that just recently left the crown and had Rihanna at the independent ceremony? So I guess, like, how did Barbados rake up all of that debt while under colonial control? And if so, if you can get that much debt and be part of the British Empire, what’s the point of being part of the British Empire?
Abrahm Lustgarten Well, I think you just summarized the entire story. I mean.
Amy Westervelt Yes.
Mary Annaïse Heglar I no joke. I really did not think I did not know that if you were still under colonial rule, that you were responsible for your own debts.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah. So Barbados has been independent for a long time, since the since the sixties. So it wasn’t exactly under colonial rule. But but but the Queen of England was still the official ruler of Barbados until their recent departure and becoming an independent republic. But even now they’re still a member of the Commonwealth, so they’re still, you know, a member of the countries that orbit the former British colonial power.
Mary Annaïse Heglar What’s the benefit of that, a thing in the Commonwealth?
Abrahm Lustgarten Well, it’s a good question. I mean, it’s I think it’s partially a matter of heritage at this point. And and the UK is an ally of of Barbados. Imagine that there’s, you know, financial and other government benefits that come with having the UK support.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Amy Westervelt I always wonder why so many Commonwealth countries that are totally independent now still have the Queen on their money. And I think it’s.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Something that’s the Prince heritage, too. Yeah.
Abrahm Lustgarten Like Canada?
Amy Westervelt Yeah, like Canada. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Okay. So your story also talks about how debt and climate change come to this sort of devastating collision. Can you talk a little bit more about that and sort of how that came to be and how it plays out today? How, you know, how do these two things collide? You can absolutely re retread some of the territory that you walked in this Barbados story because I think it illustrates it so well.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah. I mean, I think we’re all learning quickly that climate change, the impacts of climate change are going to be unbelievably expensive and they’re going to be expensive for countries like the United States, but they’re going to be even more expensive for the developing world and for middle income countries, of which, you know, Barbados and the islands of the Caribbean are are one of them. And so, you know, for me, this project, it came together from a bunch of different directions at once with the first was just to look at a part of the world. That is so close to the United States that is so incredibly imperiled by climate change itself. And we think about hurricanes as being the predominant threat for, you know, for the for the islands of the Caribbean. And it is an unbelievable threat. But they’re also facing rising temperatures and drought and sea level rise and blight of their crops and a loss of fresh water and the salinization of their aquifers. And and the list goes on and on. So they’re really kind of getting it at all angles. And, you know, and many of those perils are, you know, dramatically as bad or worse as anywhere else on the planet. So they’ve they’re in a tough situation. And then it also happens that they’re in a great amount of debt. The islands of the Caribbean are, you know, are one of the most indebted group of countries in the world. To take a step back. I’ve been interested for a long time in, you know, in the in the power of of the IMF and the World Bank and how they are steering, supporting or interfering with all sorts of countries ability to adapt to to climate change, you know, to find the money, to pay for the expenses to to protect themselves, to build seawalls, to to build water treatment plants, to make sure that they have fresh water supplies or underground electoral cabling or all of the various sort of boring, mundane infrastructure things that make it that can make a country continue to operate in the face of, you know, of environmental crisis. And so these issues just came together. You know, for me, in looking at the Caribbean, extremely high risk, extremely high levels of debt. And because of the the debt and the bankruptcy that Barbados is just an example of of a number of countries that are going through something similar, a real dependance on the IMF and the World Bank to basically allow or disallow their ability to adapt to climate change.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. One of the more interesting things in the story is how you talked about how arguably that’s actually the the mission of the IMF and the world. Yes, right.
Abrahm Lustgarten Exactly. I mean, so both institutions were created after World War Two in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to basically stabilize the world economy and to to do that by making sure that small countries, big countries, all could sort of depend on each other. There was a little bit of like a, you know, a collectivization and, you know, an insurance type of pooling that would happen in the and the countries that were members. And there’s 180 or so members, they would they would pay dues. And then the the collective resources would be used to support those other countries in need. And it’s all just meant to kind of stabilize the global economy because a shock in one place, you know, winds up being the shock in another. But the essence of my reporting was looking at how the IMF, especially and the World Bank could also be a, you know, a candidate for this criticism. But I happened to focus on the IMF. They’ve just been slow to recognize that climate change is as much of an economic threat as all the other kinds of economic threats that they always look at and that they exist to prevent. And it’s just become a sort of inexplicable contradiction in their mission. And then as they’ve slowly come around to the idea of it, it’s, you know, they haven’t developed the muscles to to actually address it.
Amy Westervelt Right. Can you can you take another step like way back and just talk a little bit about how a country like Barbados ends up in large amounts of debt in this way in the first place? What are they like? What are they borrowing to do and where are they borrowing from?
Abrahm Lustgarten So Barbados, like a lot of middle and low income countries, takes on enormous debt for a complex set of reasons that are not all as as sort of blameless as just being a victim of climate change. There’s periods of corruption, really poor management, as they’ve cycled through, you know, various governments over the years. You know, a boondoggle here and there. All of these things have added up, as they have for many poorer countries to, you know, a fragile to poor fiscal situation. Their economy isn’t super strong. In the case of Barbados. The economy is enormously dependent on tourism. Its second great source of income is the banking industry, offshore banking and, you know, trading and financing and incorporating companies in Barbados who don’t want to incorporate in the United States, for example. Both of these things dried up substantially during the 2008 financial crisis and then dried up again as COVID hit. So aside from climate change, Barbados was in a real, you know, economic predicament over those years. You know, it couldn’t balance its budgets. It was paying more to government staff than it was earning in tax revenues. And it would borrow from its own central bank. It would borrow from the IMF and the World Bank. It would borrow from foreign banks and lenders like Citibank or JPMorgan Chase or BlackRock or Credit Suisse in in Europe. And it just like any like any consumer that needs more money, it would take on debt to fund the things that it couldn’t pay for without necessarily fixing its balance sheet so that it was using its money more efficiently or could balance that balance sheet in the future. Then you pile on top of that the effect of of climate change for Caribbean countries in particular, a significant amount of the debt of many of those countries. Barbados is actually a little bit of an exception, but countries like Grenada or Dominica or Jamaica, which also have very high debt, it’s past hurricanes and disasters that have cost them so much money. So in 2017, you know, Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island of Dominica and just wiped the island out. It cleared trees down to stumps and left few buildings standing. And the cost of that in the space of 36 hours was about 226% of that country’s GDP. So two and a half years of its total economic activity. And you imagine, you know, how long it would take to recover from that. So that’s kind of an extreme example. But all of these countries have had big environmental hits at one point or another. And because there isn’t really a good global financial mechanism to pay for loss and damages in these countries that have disasters, the cost of those disasters just gets piled onto their balance sheet. And if they’re already having a difficult time balancing that balance sheet, then they either take on more debt to pay for the costs, those disasters, using the same banks and mechanisms that I just described, or best case, they just have a very hard time paying back the debt that they already have. But either way, those disasters are weighing heavily. And then you add on top of that the additional layer of the future costs of climate change and what they need to be prepared to start paying for from this point forward. And there’s just, you know, they’re in a deep hole. There’s almost no way out.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. I thought you did such a good job in this story of, like, making it relatable to personal debt, you know, in this way that that, like, individuals can wind up with, you know, loans and credit card debt and then, you know, they’re just barely paying the interest rates on those. Right. And then maybe they are in a natural disaster themselves and have to evacuate. And, you know, it’s it’s easy to kind of understand when you think about it in these terms. I think.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah, it’s it’s almost the same thing. You know, it’s you know, in 2017 when Barbados declared bankruptcy, it was paying 55% of its GDP to service the debt that it owed. And imagine, just like you’re an individual, imagine like you want to improve your education system and you wish you had better funding for colleges. And you need to build a new hospital and you need a new water treatment system and you’re trying to find the money for all of that. But more than half of your entire country’s income is just going right back offshore to pay the banks that hold your debt, mostly for interest and some for principle.
Amy Westervelt Yeah, yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Talk about a vicious, vicious cycle. So in restructuring the debt, I’m not even sure if that’s the right term. The. Prime minister of Barbados tied a hurricane clause to the loan agreements. Can you talk a little bit more about what a hurricane or disaster clause is and how it could change the face of debt at the international level?
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah, so there’s lots of layers to the debt and there’s lots of layers to the kind of relief that countries like Barbados or it’s Prime Minister Mottley want. And it ranges from like actual forgiveness of debt, just wiping it off the balance sheets to just a little bit of breathing room. And me and mottley calls that fiscal space and that’s basically like a reprieve of a couple of months so that you can use the money that you would pay for debt to, to, you know, address something else that’s more of an emergency and is to do exactly what I just described. Like you have. You’re supposed to pay your money to Citibank, but you really need to fix a water main that’s leaking. And you need a you need to be able to take that money from the debt and spend it on the water main without getting in trouble, without losing your credit rating, without your banks going bankrupt or your, you know, the value of your currency imploding and becoming nothing. So they’re basically they were just creatively when they restructure their debt, which is a process of basically negotiating with the whole world to give them a break. You know, they were looking for mechanisms or a creative way to build in some kind of protection for themselves. That wasn’t just an insurance policy. And insurers, by the way, you know, they don’t really want to insure countries like Barbados anymore because there’s no amount insurers ultimately want to make money in there. They think that they’ll lose they’ll pay out more than they’ll take in. So insurance isn’t a good mechanism. So Barbados was trying to figure out a different solution. And they came up with it’s actually the second time it’s used, but they came up with what was called a hurricane clause. And it’s it’s really simple. They they sell bonds to foreign investors, and those bonds come with a contract for when and how they’re paid out and the interest rate that they’re paid out for. And the hurricane clause basically says if there’s a major storm and it exceeds a certain threshold, I think for Barbados, it was 5% of of the their GDP or something like that. But for each hurricane clause, there’s a threshold. If if the disaster is were, you know, exceeds the threshold, then the debt automatically goes into a period of relief. They don’t owe payments for a certain amount of time. The banks that are owed the money don’t lose the money. It gets tacked on to the end of the period. So if they owed, you know, $10 million over 30 years and they owed $1,000 a month in interest on that, which are absurd numbers. But just, you know, for the for the example, they would not have to pay the thousand dollars. And at the end of the term, it would be 35 years instead of 30. And they would owe, you know, $32 million or something like that. So they still owe the money at the end, but they get a break so that they can use the money upfront to address the urgent needs that come up.
Amy Westervelt Which is smart because if a hurricane wipes them out, they’re not paying anybody any money. Right. I mean, it makes financial sense for the the the lenders to.
Abrahm Lustgarten Well, that’s me and Molly’s argument. That was that was precisely what she, you know, told the the the lenders who didn’t necessarily want to hear it at first. But yeah, she’s like, basically, I can go bankrupt and you get nothing and we all suffer or, you know, I can remain at the table and you lose a little bit and I lose a little bit, but we both come out ahead.
Amy Westervelt Right.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mhm. Did we already spell out how the debt is so much more severe in the Caribbean.
Amy Westervelt Why it’s so much more severe? Is it more severe than other global south countries?
Abrahm Lustgarten So. Yes. Yes. I can’t remember the exact ranking. The debt and the total debt in the Caribbean is among the highest, if not the highest, depending on which country or group of countries you’re looking at around the world. Barbados is debt. At the time that it declared bankruptcy, was was it? I think it was 165% of GDP or something like that. And that’s a ratio that the that the IMF uses to to measure high debt. It wants a nation’s debt to be around 60% of its GDP. Barbados is debt was around 160 570% of of its GDP. So it’s very few, if any, countries around the world whose debt are that high. But in general, small country debt and small island debt and in particular is surging this year. The International Finance Corporation announced there is something like $54 trillion in privately held debt in a small and emerging markets around the world. And and the United Nations said that small island debts had doubled between 2008 and 2021. The IMF projected last year that three quarters of all emerging market economies around the world would pay a third or more of their total tax revenue just in interest on that debt. Wow.
Amy Westervelt And do you have a sense of how much of that is attributable to climate change? I know that that’s like a that’s a hard number to pin down a lot.
Mary Annaïse Heglar I’m a guess a lot.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yes. So there’s it’s very difficult to say to pinpoint. Exactly. And in Barbados, it’s a modest proportion. For Barbados, the fear is what happens next, how they pay for the damages to come. For countries like Dominica, it’s a much higher proportion because of that huge hit in 2017, or Grenada, which I looked at as a case study which sustained Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Also, something like 150% of its GDP was erased in in the damages from that storm. And it’s carried that debt ever since. There’s a great body of research out of the University of West Indies, also in in Barbados, that tried to answer that question you just asked and looked at sovereign debt for small island countries around the world, and it couldn’t pinpoint the exact or the researchers didn’t pinpoint the exact proportion of debt that’s environmentally caused in the Caribbean, but found that the Caribbean situation was different from the economies of other small island states, where many of those other countries in the Pacific, for example, had a real different dynamic. So they had strong, robust, diversified economies and a sustained level of growth that let them both continue to borrow. And and even while they accumulated debt, they had a better ability to pay for environmental shocks. The Caribbean, because of the frequency of storms, because the costs basically were coming in faster than the damages could get paid off, was unique globally and in the degree to which hurricanes were causing the accumulation of that debt.
Amy Westervelt That’s fascinating and terrifying. Yeah. Wow. All right. Well, we’re going to talk a little bit more about loss and damages in general right after this quick break. Back with.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Hey, hotcakes. It’s Mary. We are pretty clear on this show that you don’t need to understand all the science to care about or even to understand climate change. But at the same time, we understand that you might have a few questions about the climate science. You might have a few curiosities. So we are planning a special mailbag episode where we will go through your scientific questions and more. And you can send those questions to Hot Take at Cricket.com.au. That’s hot take at cricket.com.au. We’re planning to have this episode in sometime in September, and we will be inviting on a fantastic climate scientist to help us talk through these things. So again, send your questions to hot take at Crooked Media dotcom.
Amy Westervelt [AD]
Amy Westervelt Okay. So I know I actually was working on a story last year about the the way that loss and damages shows up in the global climate conversation in general. And Myanmar was like a big is a big figure in that as well. Like she is someone who speaks on this at international climate summits quite a bit. And I’m wondering if, you know, how like how much that came up in your conversations with her?
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah. I mean, to the extent that it comes up, it’s part of her whole impassioned package of the about the unfairness and the enormous inequity.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Abrahm Lustgarten You know there countries like Barbados face but really all indebted and small countries face in the global climate community. You know, in in the Paris community or facing the IMF and facing the World Bank, where they’re just essentially unsupported in paying for loss and damages or paying for infrastructure or even paying for, you know, the mitigation projects that they hope to undertake. And, you know, so she is you know, she’s delivered this series of fiery speeches and become a really prominent spokesperson on, you know, on this issue, whether at a cop or at the United Nations. And she’s the same way in you know, in our conversations, this has become just like, you know, a burning nugget of frustration deep in her core, the injustice of it all, even the fact that so many hundreds of millions and billions of dollars have been promised by the United Nations or through the Paris Agreement and still not delivered. You know, so so, you know, she will list the many and myriad ways in which, you know, Barbados and other small countries have been and continue to be wronged, even as they need so much more than than what they’re promised. They haven’t been given what they’ve been promised either.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar I want to take a quick step back, actually, and talk about what loss and damage actually is. And Amy, I know you’ve done a lot of like research and reporting on that. So I’m actually asking both of you for folks who are not as familiar, what is what do you mean when you say loss and damage?
Amy Westervelt Yeah, well, just I’ll just put some, like, years on it. So, you know, I’m like I like numbers even though you’re not supposed to use them. And I like data, but I’m not going to do it. I’m going to do it.
Mary Annaïse Heglar I like dates. Yeah.
Amy Westervelt So Vanuatu kind of first brought this up at the very first international climate summit, which was the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. And the basic premise is, look, global north countries, for the most part, are the countries that have enriched themselves via fossil fuels. And the global south. Countries, for the most part, are the countries that are facing the most severe and most expensive climate impacts. So the idea is that the countries that made money off of this problem should pay into a fund, that the countries that are, you know, going to experience the worst of this problem can can use to deal with climate adaptation, deal with disaster relief, and deal with transitioning off of fossil fuels, all of which are expensive things to do and hard to do when like we just talked about in the first segment, you’re saddled with a bunch of debt. You’re trying to like find the money to improve your roads and infrastructure and education and health care and all of these things. But you have this enormous amount of debt. And in in 2009, like, there was this agreement that Abram just sort of referenced that, you know, yes, countries are going to put in money into this fund. The idea was that by 2020, there would be a $100 billion a year available to global south countries. And that has not happened. No one has has actually lived up to this promise. And, you know, there’s a lot of I feel like it comes up at COP almost every year and and global south countries are getting under like justifiably so, more and more pissed at every conference because the US and other countries like to kick this problem down the road. Abrahm, please jump in here if I’m getting anything that’s wrong or clarify. Yeah.
Abrahm Lustgarten You’re doing a great job. Yeah, I think something like 19 billion of that has ever been disbursed. And then and and it’s been split between, you know, 70 odd countries around the world. So its impact has really been minimal. And yeah, you’re you’re exactly right. It’s just this this incredible unfairness tied to the reason that the costs are mounting in the first place. The reason in the case of the Caribbean, why the debt is mounting in the first place, really, you know, a substantial portion of it isn’t their fault at all.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Yeah. You know, we had this like running. It’s not even a joke, but like this running theme on the show where like, Amy will explain something about how the fossil fuel industry works. And I’ll be like, Oh, that’s sharecropping. And as we’re as we’re going through. As we’re going through all of this debt and how these financial institutions are set up, it’s like, oh, that’s just colonialism with extra steps. So like we often talk about how climate change was caused by colonialism. And while that’s true, it’s also still being propped up by this type of climate. Colonialism, right?
Abrahm Lustgarten That’s exactly right. And so so that was a theme in what I wrote. But it was also you know, it was a theme that emerged for Myanmar through the course of my reporting. And it was really interesting for me to watch, not that I can pretend to be in her head or, you know, or suggest that this wasn’t a strong feeling for her at the outset. But over the course of the year, that that I, you know, reported this story. She gave a number of those speeches that we talked about, and she was rebuffed a number of times. And the the overall, you know, situation in the world and with the with the COP summit and the response to the demand for better funding and financial recognition was all negative. Everything kind of went in the wrong direction. And she just got increasingly frustrated and began to see the system for what you just described, which is, you know, that it was just yet again, it wasn’t a system that she was supposed to use and could use to climb out of her own debt hole. But it was actually the same old oppression, you know, that her island and her people and, you know, and the generations before her had been, you know, coping with for 200 years on Barbados, just in a different form. Whatever wealth they had would be extracted in one form or another.
Amy Westervelt Do you have any sense of of how this will come up in the next cop in Cairo? What are what are you kind of keeping an eye out for there?
Abrahm Lustgarten So it came up so prominently in in Glasgow, more so than many people expected, or at least, you know, up until, you know, the immediate build up. And it was a robust conversation and there was great hope at that moment. And Myanmar was a part of that conversation, gave a significant speech there. So that was a moment of hope and greater attention to these issues than than had been paid before in that forum. And then virtually nothing happened after that. I’ve heard a lot of kind of cynicism about what happens next in Egypt. And, you know, the general expectation is that it will come up again. The conversation has gotten a little more sophisticated, the media coverage, including my piece, but lots of pieces have, you know, brought more attention to the needs. And so it might go that conversation might go further, you know, in Egypt than than it has so far. But there’s, you know, real tempered expectations about what might result from it.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. Amy, I’m going to ask you to answer your own question, because I know you’ve been thinking about it. What are you looking for in Cairo?
Amy Westervelt Oh, I have. I have basically the same answer. Yeah, I think I just I just don’t know. Although I do wonder how much a lot of the, you know, extreme weather events we’re seeing all year, all summer long, you know, all over the place. Yeah, all year long. But especially this summer, I feel like it’s been quite intense and and really like everywhere all at once in a way that I’m not sure I remember seeing. It makes me wonder if that will have an impact on on these conversations one way or the other. Like will, you know, will the all of the heat waves in Europe make European countries go? Well, we’re having our own big climate impacts that we need to pay for. You know, like. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Abrahm Lustgarten Well, I think that’s just it. And then, you know, that’s a that’s a theme or at least an anecdotal comment that would come up repeatedly, you know, through the course of my reporting, which boils down to the sort of sad reality that most countries, most citizens of of most wealthier countries just aren’t interested in paying this tab. And as long as they’re not, it’s unlikely to get paid, no matter how many economists say that the numbers can work out and that it’s the right thing to do, you know, and the fact that there’s more storms and more, you know, more shocks in our country and across Europe is only increasing the sense locally in those places that they have enough to pay for. You know, there’s a bit of a backlash against foreign aid in general, a less and less desire to, you know, send national money abroad. And, you know, I think that that’s going to continue to be a huge headwind on, you know, loss and damage kind of compensation as well.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Oh. Oh, no. Just a bit. All right.
Amy Westervelt So it’s true.
Mary Annaïse Heglar One of the most frustrating assumptions in in climate policy and just in climate conversations is that the environment has to take a backseat to the economy. And your story talked a lot about how our financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank don’t take climate into consideration at all or even think, is there a problem that is kind of part of the story that surprised me the most. What part of the investigation surprised you the most?
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah, that’s it. I mean, because. Well, because it seems so obvious to me, right? I mean I mean, the return on investment for, you know, paying for infrastructure in countries in the Caribbean that protects them against climate change in the context of the debt. And the cost of these storms is something like 6 to 8 times. So, like, I don’t think that there’s a strong moral argument, you know, to this whole to this whole issue. But if you want to approach it, unlike a strictly economic level, it pencils out like the more you pay for these things upfront or you provide the money to pay for them upfront, the less draw there is on, you know, on foreign aid in the future, the less greater expense there is, the less losses there are by Wall Street banks and so forth. So so it seems to make sense to do that. And, you know, the IMF especially has just been very, very slow to recognize that these economies work that way. The World Bank is a little different. It’s a mixed bag and it needs to do a lot more. But it has you know, it now has robust climate programs and climate policies, but they’re not effectively fixing the problems that we’re talking about yet. The IMF just doesn’t have that at all. And so when when a country like Grenada is or Barbados is in, you know, fiscal dire straits, the IMF goes in and basically is like their doctor and gives them a workup and says, here’s, here’s everything you’re doing wrong, here’s everything you’re doing right, here’s how you can balance your balance sheet. You need to sell off your airport and fire a thousand employees and raise taxes. And and if you do all those things, then your balance sheet will work out. And that’s the way they’ve always done it. And that’s the way they’re still doing it. And what they’re completely failing to do, even as they increasingly pay lip service to how important climate change is and how important equity around, you know, the fiscal side of climate change is, they’re still not calculating in the future costs of climate change when they decide what makes an economy healthy and they’re not making sure that countries can set aside the money to pay for that or can get the inexpensive loans from the IMF or elsewhere to pay for it. So they keep kind of trying to write a country’s balance sheet and leave it just as vulnerable to climate change as it would have been before it had fiscal problems in the first place.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. Yeah, well, I know a lot of these oil companies are mad that the financial industry is becoming really climate woke.
Amy Westervelt Yeah, that’s a whole new thing. Yeah
Mary Annaïse Heglar Which, of course, is which, of course, is bullshit. So we’re going to talk a little bit more about what the oil companies are getting up to after this ad break.
Mary Annaïse Heglar [AD]
Amy Westervelt [AD].
Amy Westervelt So I wanted to talk to you a little bit, Abrahm, about this kind of other side of this, which is that some of the countries that are in a similar predicament is Barbados, where they’re heavily leveraged and they’re probably going to experience some very expensive climate impacts are dealing with that problem in another way, which is making deals with oil companies to drill for oil. So this is this is kind of what’s happening to a lot of the countries that have either gas or oil resources as they’re in this real bind where they’re fully aware of the fact that drilling more oil will exacerbate this problem, but they have this immediate debt that needs to be dealt with. So I don’t know. I just I don’t know if you’ve looked at that or have any thoughts about it in general. I’ve been working on a story about Guyana for a long time, so I’m sort of down the rabbit hole on this. And the World Bank is very involved in that too, because at a certain point they were really kind of encouraging fossil fuel development as a as one type of economic development. And so, yeah, I’m curious what you what you think about that.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah. So I, I am sure, I don’t know a 10th as much about it as, as you do. And I have not gone down that rabbit hole. So I’m, you know, only sort of generally, you know, cognizant, except to say that, you know, as you pointed out, like these countries are in the crucible right there. They have they need the money. And they don’t have any other way to get the money, but to kind of serve this master of the oil, you know, the oil companies and I and it’s terrible. And yet, you know, I’m not sure that we should expect anything different without some other kind of, you know, outside engagement or interference in that system. And this is exactly where, you know, like this is the wrong place for the World Bank to be. And when the World Bank supports projects like that and I know they they do in a number of of cases, it runs counter to, you know, what they say about climate change and about, you know, the need for countries to adapt around the world. And it’s just not helping. And, you know, and it tends to undermine whatever else they do do to, you know, to help countries around the world adapt to climate change. You know, and I think that the way to look at it is sort of similar to the way that we’re starting to look at, you know, efforts to save the Amazon. You know, do you compensate Brazil for not cutting down trees? And I think that we you know, we need to consider compensating other countries that have, you know, valuable resources for not mining those resources, if that’s the only way that they can produce revenues, if that’s what’s important to us, to the rest of the world.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah. Well, and that’s been I mean, I think it was in, I want to say 2007 in Ecuador. The the president at the time, Rafael Correa, had this idea, right. Of asking the world to like pay Ecuador not to drill oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon. And like everyone, it got so much press. Everyone was like, what an amazing idea. Bravo. Yes, this is a thing that we should do. And then, you know, he was asking for 3.6 billion. And I think by the by 2013 had about 200 million, which is pretty good, you know, percentage wise compared to the loss and damages stuff. But but still not enough to, you know, to justify. So I think they kind of went with this half measure of like keeping some of it in the ground, but allowing drilling in other parts. And I was just talking to a guy in Guyana who was like, Yeah, we would love it if someone would pay us to not drill this oil, but if we don’t do it, then Venezuela is probably going to do it, you know, and and they’re taking these contracts with these oil companies that, of course, are not great for the countries in question, like these countries are not going to end up making it rich off of oil. You know.
Abrahm Lustgarten They’ll lose almost all of the profit from doing that.
Amy Westervelt It’s they’ll lose. Exactly. Exactly. So it’s really but it’s but they’re they’re like, well, you know, this might give us enough in the short term. And there again, Guyana is looking at oil money as a way to pay down enough debt to free up enough of their GDP to build roads and build schools and, you know, make the make the country somewhat resilient to to climate disasters. And this is it’s just yeah, I don’t know. It’s just this kind of constant trap that I think your story did such a good job of outlet lining. But I think it’d be great if more folks in countries like ours and European countries where we’re aware of and like cared enough about to kind of push for. For loss and damages.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah. You know, this is where I know you want to stay on oil, which is more interesting anyway, but. But this is where me and Motley arrives at. Right? Bye bye. Like March of this year. You know, is that is this conclusion that the economic system just doesn’t work, that you can’t use, you know, this whole hope of producing a product, selling a product for market value to slowly scrape out of your, you know, your hole of debt, whether you’re Guyana or Barbados, it just the system is all set up against you and it will never work. And the only thing that will begin to work is, you know, to try to envision a totally different way of covering the expenses of these parts of the world.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Yeah. What this really underscores to me is that climate reparations really are the ultimate climate solution. And I think it kind of, you know, people kind of dismiss it as like this. You’re just doing it because it’s the right thing to do as though that’s a bad reason to do something. But it also. Right. But but it’s also like, you know, if I have all of this oil and the only way I can support myself is by selling that oil or by going further into debt like climate reparations really does emerge as the. As as the solution to it. As the solution to a problem caused by slavery and colonialism. I hope actually that’s what we hear more of in Cairo. I know it’s come up a lot at different cops, but like I want to hear people talk more full throated li and not just folks from the global south about the need for for climate reparations. And it’s not an accident that the people who deserve slavery reparations and colonial represent reparations are exact same people who need climate reparations. And it seems like debt forgiveness would be a good first step toward it.
Amy Westervelt Yeah. Yeah, totally. Totally. Well, and to your point earlier, Abrahm, like it makes financial sense too, if you don’t care about doing the right thing, which you should, but like if you don’t, it doesn’t make financial sense too, because these are all like all of these issues are going to cause major migration and refugee crises, which is something that you’ve covered extensively in the past, too. So it’s going to like I don’t know, it’s like the idea that you can be part of a global market but not actually have any of the impacts that that happen when everything is connected globally, is it’s way more foolish and nonsensical than the idea of.
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah. And I think, you know, that’s really the the ultimate consequence that’s kind of hanging out there. But that, you know, the world has been slow to recognize it is still this sort of fantasy of of a globalized world to think that, you know, everything around the planet stays separate, you know, that we we can draw these profits from far, far away and we can use the resources of another country far, far away in colonials, those places. But the effects, the impacts of that stay far, far away. And migration is going to change that. And, you know, the Caribbean is adjacent to the United States and, you know, is a is a potential source of of great migration, the the influx of people that Europe can expect out of, you know, out of North Africa, you know, is just enormous. And the costs of that destabilization or addressing that migration one way or another, not all of which maybe will be negative, but the costs will be enormous and they will probably exceed, you know, by many times what it might have taken to pay those reparations now or to pay down those debts now in a way that would help stabilize those places.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Yeah, I really loved your series. I think it was then ProPublica and The New York Times about climate, immigration. It was like a five part story. Yeah, really, really, really good work. And we’re planning to do a deeper dove on climate immigration in the future. Colonialism, climate. Colonialism can be a big, big driver of that. And one of the most haunting things about that series was the final story about the one place that will actually improve with climate change. Can you talk a little bit about where that is and why?
Abrahm Lustgarten Yeah, I wrote that story about Russia and, you know, and the premise of that story or the case study on that was that, you know, that Russia’s environment and potentially Russia’s economy would improve as the climate warmed. But what the research actually says is that all sorts of northern countries and economies will improve. So Canada and Finland and Norway, you know, and and Russia among them. But you know what Russia has that, you know, the rest of the world does not is enormous land resources and incredible ability to produce to produce food. It’s already the largest grain producer in the world and and not a lot of people. So not that Russians want a lot of outsiders moving in, but the Russian land mass has the capacity to absorb and even take advantage of a great number of of migrants should that kind of. Northern migration happened in the case of Russia would be out of South Asia largely, but that they can capitalize on that. It takes you know, it takes human capital and population to, you know, to grow an economy. But there’s some research out of Stanford University, Marshall Burke, you know, that’s looked at the economic growth potential for northern countries. And and it’s it’s dependent on having, you know, the population to support the economic growth. But but his models basically say that, you know, by late in the century, you know, Russian the Russian economy could grow by 400%. The Canadian economy could grow by 250% due to climate factors alone. You know, as the benefits of living in a northern and colder climate, you know, shift their way.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Mm hmm. And the odds of, like you alluded to, the odds of Russia taking in a ton of climate refugees is not super high.
Abrahm Lustgarten Well, you know, in the present, you know, Russians are not very welcoming, you know, tend to be racist is a strong word. But they came up a lot in my reporting. They really don’t like outsiders.
Amy Westervelt Maybe.
Abrahm Lustgarten But but that that can all change over over the decades, as you know, the great need for for people to, you know, to settle land and to turn it into arable land and to, you know, produce crops on it and make industry, you know, as those needs get get greater and greater. I mean, the Russian population is is shrinking. The demographic trends are not positive. So they will need more people if they want to, you know, meet those other objectives.
Amy Westervelt Yikes. What’s Russian for? Great replacement theory? No, I’m just guessing these guys. I mean. Yeah, this is the thing, too. Is that like this? I don’t know. I just. I feel like there’s, like, a very clear, like, smart and preventative way to deal with this. And it is climate reparations and helping, you know, the entire world prepare for this. And there is a very short sighted and, like, you know, horrific way. And and I, I just don’t want to think about it right this minute, but. Well, we’re going to we’re going to. Oh, yeah. It’s the it’s like you say all the time, period. It’s like how what people and especially white people will do as all of these impacts come to bear.
Abrahm Lustgarten Well, for me, it comes back to the IMF a little bit just to bring it full circle, because, you know, because the IMF, you know, because of how it was formed and and how its members work, you know, has these incredible reserves, you know, at its disposal or at least, you know, under its sway. So, you know, something like 12 and a half trillion dollars now. And, you know, one of the one of very smart economists that I talked to who works for the for the government of Barbados with me and Mottley, you know, is is pitching a whole sort of series of solutions that seem to have legs that are basically use the IMF’s resources as a as a way to pay those reparations that we’re talking about. You know, and it might not quite be as much as, you know, as an actual giveaway, as a, you know, an actual reparation. But the idea is to harness this incredible sum of money, you know, $12 trillion that lies outside of, you know, of of a sovereign account and, you know, and is not controlled by anyone, you know, independent and selfish government and use that, you know, for the IMF’s mission, but designate it, you know, for some climate good and to be able to like improve the resiliency of the countries that we’re talking about in the ways that we’re talking about. So there’s like, you know, there’s the invention of of new mechanisms and ideas. And I think these will come up, you know, at the next COP summit as well. You know, it’s it’s not like the world is at a total loss for for what to do. It’s just a question of, you know, if if some of these ideas can get any traction.
Amy Westervelt Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Well, I feel like that’s a good a good place to end. Kind of a hopeful idea from. Thank you. Thank you for that. You know, a lot of us on this show we would.
Abrahm Lustgarten Like to climb out of.
Amy Westervelt Yeah.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Yeah. Thank you for that. We don’t get a lot of hopeful moments here on high tech. So and I mean, you know, this is we’re not scared to go to the dark places, whatever.
Amy Westervelt Thank you for going there with us. And. Yeah, well, we’ll link to your Barbados story and all of your other great work and we appreciate all of it.
Abrahm Lustgarten Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for talking about this and thanks for being interested in my work. And I really appreciate yours as well.
Amy Westervelt Thank you. Thank you.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Hot take is a Crooked Media production.
Amy Westervelt It’s produced by Ray Peng and mixed and edited by Juels Bradley. Our music is by Vasillis Fotopoulos. Thimali Kodakara is our consulting producer and our executive producers are Mary Annaïse Heglar, Michael Martinez, and me Amy Westervelt.
Mary Annaïse Heglar Special thanks to Sandy Girard Ari Schwartz, Kyle Seglin and Charlotte Landes for production support and to Amelia Montooth for digital support.
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