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Rich Countries Should Give Poor Countries Money out of Sheer Self-Interest

Climate justice is moral. But it’s also practical.

A donkey stands tied to a post, with the smoking ruins of rainforest in the background.
A donkey stands tied up next to a burnt area of Amazon rain forest reserve, south of Novo Progresso in Para state, on August 16, 2020.

A major sticking point at the last U.N. climate change conference, known as COP26, was the matter of how much money rich countries are going to give poor countries to fight climate change. This question of so-called climate finance is usually framed as a matter of justice: Rich countries and their emissions have contributed far more to the climate problem, while the catastrophes unleashed by global warming are likely to affect poor countries even more. This case for “climate reparations” has been made by philosophers writing in Foreign Policy magazine, by the Sierra Club, and by many others. Like most pleas for fairness, it’s a righteous argument—an ethically unimpeachable one. Like most pleas for fairness, it’s also extremely unpopular among those who actually wield the power to do something. 

But increasingly, this framing also seems inadequate. Climate finance isn’t just an issue of fairness. The global north must help the global south not only to help its billions of residents but to save the whole planet. We must help poor countries if our own ecosystems and civilizations are to survive. 

Recent reports on biodiversity and species loss make this case. A study published last week in Nature and reported by The New York Times, found that 20 percent of reptile species face extinction, mostly as they lose habitats to tropical deforestation, expansion of agriculture, and logging. The illegal wildlife trade is also a factor, as are invasive species. Threatened species—which include crocodiles, turtles, lizards, and snakes—are concentrated in Southeast Asia, northern Madagascar, the northern Andes, and the Caribbean.

The same week, another report warned that the oceans were heating so drastically that marine creatures risk the worst mass extinction event in 250 million years, especially shocking since ocean life has been considered remarkably resilient and humans have until now caused relatively few extinctions of marine animals.

And that wasn’t even all the bad news for biodiversity: The Guardian also reported last week that data from the World Resources Institute, or WRI, on deforestation showed millions of hectares of tropical tree cover lost in 2021, with the most forest lost in Brazil, home to the priceless biodiversity reservoir and carbon sink known as the Amazon rain forest. Other countries suffering significant deforestation are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Laos, Bolivia, and Cameroon.

This absolute massacre is devastating for animal lovers. How could we bear the loss of the orangutan, the pygmy sloth, the giant otter, or the monarch butterfly? We may feel less tenderly toward the iguana or the sea snake—we share something close to kinship with the orangutan, whereas cold-blooded, unblinking prehistoric creatures may seem more alien—but their absence, too, would leave the world a less miraculous, less wonderful place.

But this isn’t a matter of mere sentiment. Even people who would never notice the disappearance of the African chameleon or the Komodo dragon—who we’re admittedly unlikely to meet in the wild—depend on what scientists call “ecosystem services,” a somewhat dry but useful bit of jargon that describes the benefits humans derive when the rest of nature is functioning well: food, natural resources (like timber, for example), clean air, clean water, shade, the absorption of carbon, happiness, health and well-being. The loss of any species disrupts ecosystems and thus, potentially, our own lives. The collapse of the Amazon’s ecosystems, for example, will catastrophically warm our world, which currently depends on the Amazon to remove huge amounts of carbon from the air. Then there are the direct public health effects: Most human diseases originate with animals, and a growing body of research shows that biodiversity lowers the risk that infectious diseases will spread. Species loss and shifting migratory patterns, on the other hand, raise the likelihood of deadly pandemics in the coming years.

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People living in the global south are doing excellent work to preserve biodiversity. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported on a conservation nongovernmental organization in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula that has successfully worked with the local community to reverse deforestation and preserve the region’s wildlife, including its three winsome primates—spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and the capuchins. People in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has some of the most biodiverse forests on earth, risk their lives to protect mountain gorillas from poachers in Virunga National Park, with some success; there are only 1,000 of the animals left in the world, but that number has been gradually increasing, and one gorilla gave birth to two babies just last week. Such things don’t happen just because people were enlightened. Conservation takes resources, one thing that poor countries, by definition, lack. Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the WRI, told The Guardian that the countries that are taking action aren’t getting enough support. They need not just direct support for their conservation efforts but also support to lift millions out of poverty—sustainable development that gives people an alternative to making money through deforestation. They need support for industrializing with clean energy rather than the fossil fuels rich countries have already burned far too much of, whose fumes poison both people and habitats. The global north could provide that support, and it’s in our urgent interest to do so.

This weekend, alarmed about the dangers facing bees, another species upon which numerous ecosystems depend, I planted some bee balm, a pollinator-friendly plant that can help bees survive and continue to providing the excellent service of pollinating our world and helping more flowers to grow (along similar lines, in the suburbs, some are participating in No Mow May, helping pollinators thrive by not mowing their lawns). I also stocked up on milkweed for the monarch butterflies.

Doing this lifted my spirits—and that’s important!—but my gardening efforts in Brooklyn have, I hate to admit, little global impact. What’s more urgent is that those of us living in rich countries press our own governments to act to save the biodiversity of the tropics—to provide the financing poorer countries desperately need to lift people out of poverty, while protecting their natural treasures. Doing so would be ethical, but let’s not disregard our self-interest. This planet is one big ecosystem. If rich countries don’t help poor countries, we are all screwed.