Looking at the numbers, the transatlantic slave trade matches the Holocaust in horror - maybe even without counting subsidiary effects like internal strife and deaths inflected on the continent, death during transport, death during ownership, collapse of African economies, and such. However, there is no real post-slave trade equivalent to the Nazi-hunters still tracking the offenders. At large, excuses and reparations have not been made. Indeed, the reparations were made to the slave traders that lost their businesses after the ban on slave trade instead of to the victims of slavery. Why the difference? In the first case the offenders (Nazi Germany) lost power, in the other the offenders (Americans and Europeans) remained in power. It is no news that history is written by the victors: As the African proverb says, "Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter".
Another tragedy is unfolding and the West needs to learn from the past - not just for altruistic reasons. The industrialized countries that came to dominate post-slavery have caused the climate to change. Although very different in nature - no one is intentionally hurting anybody - the effects by numbers again are devastating:
Estimates on the impact of global warming vary, but all are alarming. A report released by DARA estimates that deaths related to climate change and fossil fuels, are above 5 million so far. The UN says 300,000- 500,000 deaths per year going forward. Not counting the millions that will be displaced, fall into poverty or just get ill. These numbers make climate change one of the leading causes of death in the world. Moreover, contrary to the other contenders, they are driven directly by preventable human action.
The deaths are caused by a variety of factors: Less productive agriculture, less access to food, food spoilage from heat. The above leading to diarrheal illnesses and hunger. Heat and cold illnesses, malarial, vector-borne diseases, meningitis and environmental disasters account for the rest of the deaths attributable to direct climate impacts. Pollution, indoor smoke, and occupational hazards related to the carbon economy cause the rest through ailments like skin and lung cancer.
You might argue that we are all part of a global economy that has surged by industrialization and that should counter balance these negative effects. Although, it is true that we today can say we have a massive and truly interlinked global economy that has lifted many out of poverty, it does not mean we have all benefitted or that we are all part of the cause.
Fingers are pointed at China as the big global polluter. This however is either a misunderstanding or misinformation. Although China is nominally the biggest polluter today, it is not a major polluter per capita overall and not at all historically. Adding to that, their co2 emission are exaggerated and the bulk of their emission goes towards export for Western consumption anyway. Can the West blame the Chinese for Western outsourced production?
After all, if we do decide to settle the bill, will we look at who emitted the most some arbitrary years or will we see who caused the cumulated effects of global warming? My guess is the latter. In round figures, the North America and Europe account for 52% - respectively 29% and 25% - of global CO2 emissions historically (1850-2011) and China 11%. North America's and Europe's population is roughly 10% of the globe's; China's roughly 20%. Outside of these regions and countries, there are no other double-digit culprits. We also need China to curb emissions, but when it comes to blame, it is not so much about China, but really about the West.
Although it likely that big oil will be swept in lawsuits, the debate is still civil and not about who killed whom. But it is no longer just about who is picking up the bill. The issue has already has been reframed to be normative and about 'collective selfishness' by Pope Francis.
To Pope Francis' point, the effects of global warming are felt predominately in the countries that have contributed the least to global warming - Africa and the developing world. The developed countries will at least lose on average 7% of their GDP to climate and carbon economy impacts. So right now is an opportunity for the West to pick up that bill and keep the discussion civil, before the tone of voice shifts and we start talking of lost lives.
Coming back to my initial point, it`s all about who is in power - about who's the hunter - we are seeing developing economies catching up and we see the power shifting. Alternative international institutions that challenge the existing are coming about, because the existing are seen as biased towards the West. We do not know if the West will remain in power this time again and we do not know if the new powers would want to bring the climate perpetrators to justice - Nazi-hunting style.
The West can gamble and hope to stay in power or hope those who gain power do not care too much about the carnage. The West got away with slave trade, because the West remained dominant, but in a larger context, there is little historical evidence in favor of the odds of getting away with extermination of humans on a planetary scale for self-serving reasons.
The West especially needs to seize this ultimate window of opportunity this December at COP21 in Paris - also for selfish reasons.