The climate justice movement emerged as a result of Kyoto Protocol failures. The Kyoto Protocol of 1990, linked with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), set goals to reduce pollution, regulate emissions via caps. Climate justice is an issue because the political north developed earlier than the south through the industrial revolution and more recent technologic breakthroughs such as automobiles and airplanes.
To support the seeming endless growth potential of these burgeoning economies, the north stripped the south of many valuable resources and often exploited these resources by taking far more than could be readily renewed by the ecosystem.
Today it is evident that the political south stands almost no chance of attaining the level of development that the north has reached. It is clear that a small percentage of the world's people consume the vast majority of its resources, an 80:20 ratio, actually. Eighty percent of the wealth is owned by 20% of the global human population. Thusly, resources are being consumed at a rate that exceeds what one could consider "renewable". The political south feels as though the north owes them a climate debt. The south wants to develop; people want their basic human rights to food and water access, yet many people are forced to collect water from highly polluted watersheds. The people of the political south want fair access to medicines and remedies to common but preventable illnesses such as malaria and diarrhea from toxic water sources.
The arguments for climate debt can be expressed ethically, scientifically, politically, and economically. Ethically, the north has a responsibility to do everything in their power to help raise the south up and out of poverty. The south cannot afford to pay for the climate changes that they are experiencing so harshly. Scientifically, it is observed that harvests are yielding less crop and the climate is becoming unsupportive of people's subsistence; water is becoming scarce; the rain forests are struggling and the coral reefs are vanishing while island nations lose ground and southeastern Asian countries experience the intense flooding and salination of necessary riparian zones used for agriculture that has been projected by climate experts and the IPCC (International Panel of Climate Change. Based upon this empirical evidence, the north absolutely ethically should settle the debt with the south.
Politically, there is a need for an international governance body who will develop and implement important policies, monitor the execution of those policies, and call free riders to justice for their inequities. This is difficult to accomplish because the north and south have different perspectives on the issue. The north is reluctant to face the facts and give up some of the conveniences of affluent living or to invest heavily in the research and development needed to get the world out of its current mess.
Without transparency and international governance, climate debt will be difficult to resolve. Economically, climate debt makes sense because it opens markets, drives innovation, reduces cost, and thus generates jobs and profit on a longer timescale than the immediate gratification that comes with environmental degradation for resources. However, this top-down approach has not been working very well, and bottom-up approaches from community’s to the State have been popping up around the world, including across the USA.
Arguments against climate debt mostly stem from the Political North. Typically in a capitalist system, the rich lend to the poor and ask the poor to repay them. In the situation of climate debt the poor are asking the rich to pay them back for taking their resources and their chance at development. The poor have to develop to pull themselves up out of poverty. Another argument against climate debt is the difficulty in calculating the debt. There are many factors involved, not all of which are easy to trace, measure, and assign proper accountability for. For example, pollutants in the air may be very small but in high concentrations and they come from many sources. The wind blows at all levels of the atmosphere, mixing these pollutants - and pollutants do not respect national boundaries; they go over national boundaries without consideration. Political resistance may come from a background of misunderstanding of the severity of the issue of climate justice, or for fear of losing freedoms to an intergovernmental body. All of these issues illustrate the reason for the of climate debt and the reasons for working towards settling that debt through climate justice.