Why we owe so much to victims of disaster

At the G8 summit, Brown and Blair should think of our debts to Africans, not theirs to us. We have s

If you want to know how to tackle global warming, try the simple wisdom of Wilkins Micawber in Dickens's David Copperfield. "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness," he said. "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

It is rarely understood this way, but climate change is really a problem of debt. Not a cash debt, but an ecological one. Environmentally, we're living way beyond our means, spending more than the bank of the earth and the atmosphere can replace in our accounts. It is this debt - not the hole in the nation's public spending plans - that ought to have been the subject of the election campaign. And it is this debt - not the financial debts of poor nations to rich - that should guide the thinking of the Chancellor and other western leaders as they approach the G8 summit in July.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have set Africa and global warming as the summit's key themes. Yet newly released documents reveal one of the government's more embarrassing oversights. It was agreed at an international summit, more than three years ago, to create a special pot of money to help poor countries cope with climate change. Britain, alone among major European aid donors, has failed to contribute to the "Least Developed Countries Fund".

For years, we have been pilfering from the natural resource accounts of the rest of the world. When the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America decide they want to spend their fair share of nature's equity, either it won't be there or we could be on the verge of a crash in its already overstretched banking system. If the whole world wanted to live like people in the UK, we would need the natural resources of three more planets. If the US were the model, we would need five.

It's not just that we owe these countries for our profligate use of the planet's resources. It is also that they suffer the worst effects of our overuse. The most vulnerable people in the poorest countries - particularly children and women - are in effect paying the interest on our ecological debts. According to the World Disasters Report, the number of mostly climate-related disasters rose from just over 400 a year in 1994-98 to more than 700 a year in 1999-2003, with the biggest rise in the poorest countries.

The sight of a Mozambican woman giving birth in a tree during the great storms of 2000 is seared into the world's consciousness. Mozambique was desperately poor and burdened with debt payments. The floods were the worst for 150 years. Not only had its potential to develop been mismanaged by western creditors, Mozambique was left more vulnerable because it had to choose between preparing for disasters or spending its meagre resources on health and education. Now, in a warming world, Africa's rainfall, so crucial to its farming, is about to become even more erratic.

The story is similar outside Africa. In the mid- to late 1990s, at the height of the Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation campaign, nearly half the Jamaican government's spending went on debt service. The island is rich in natural resources, but it was getting harder for it to earn a living from exporting crops such as sugar and bananas. Yet, under pressure from the IMF and the World Bank, the money available for social programmes in Jamaica was halved.

Angela Stultz-Crawle, a local woman who ran a project in Bennetlands, Kingston to provide basic health and education services, saw the consequences at first hand: reductions in health programmes, in education, in road repairs, in lights. "Just walking around," she said, "you see people living in dirt yards, scrap-board houses. It is repaying. Every day you hear the government come out and say, 'Oh, we have met our IMF deadlines, we have paid,' and everyone claps." Again, Jamaica is particularly vulnerable to the extreme weather that climate change will make more frequent. Last year alone, two major hurricanes, Ivan and Charley, skirted its shores.

So across the developing world, the poorest people suffer from two crises, to neither of which they contributed: financial debt (which their governments are repaying) and ecological debt (which our governments aren't repaying).

In case after case - the IMF-approved kleptocracy of Mobutu's Zaire, the collu-sion with corruption, asset-stripping and violence in Nigeria's oilfields - the responsibility for financial debts lies at least as much in western capitals as in developing countries in the south. Yet, to win paltry debt relief, poor countries had to swallow the economic-policy equivalent of horse pills. Even the Financial Times commented that the IMF "probably ruined as many economies as they have saved". Yet we still expect poor countries to repay most of their debts, despite the effects on their people's lifestyles. Rich countries, faced with ecological debt, will not even give up the four-wheel-drive school run.

The widening global gap in wealth was built on ecological debts. And today's economic superpowers soon became as successful in their disproportionate occupation of the atmosphere with carbon emissions as they were in colonial times with their military occupation of the terrestrial world. Until the Second World War, they managed this atmospheric occupation largely through exploiting their own fossil-fuel reserves. But from around 1950 they became increasingly dependent on energy imports. By 1998, the wealthiest fifth of the world was consuming 68 per cent of commercially produced energy; the poorest fifth, 2 per cent.

In 2002, many rich countries were pumping out more carbon dioxide per person than they were a decade earlier, when they signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Now, with Africa and climate change at the top of the G8 summit agenda, there couldn't be a better time for a little paradigm shift. If Blair and Brown want to show leadership, they could relabel the G8 as the inaugural meeting of the ecological debtors' club, and start discussing how to pay back their creditors down south.

But is there any chance that the advanced industrial economies could make the cuts in consumption needed to clear their debts? Perhaps we should ask the women recently seen reminiscing about VE Day, women who during the world war had to keep house under severe constraints. After all, global warming is now described as a threat more serious than war or terrorism. Drawing on articles in Good Housekeeping, and on guides with such titles as Feeding Cats and Dogs in Wartime or Sew and Save, they enormously reduced household consumption - use of electrical appliances, for example, dropped 82 per cent - while at the same time dramatically improving the nation's health.

The ecological debt problem of climate change, if it is to be solved, will still require a proper global framework, eventually giving everybody on the planet an equal entitlement to emit greenhouse gases, and allowing those who under-emit to trade with those who wish to over-emit. But such efforts will be hollow unless the argument to cut consumption can be won at household level.

To refuse the challenge would be the deepest hypocrisy. We have demanded that the world's poorest countries reshape their economies to pay service on dodgy foreign debts. It would be an appalling double standard now to suggest that we couldn't afford either to help developing countries adapt to climate change, or to cut our emissions by the 80-90 per cent considered necessary.

The language of restraint on public spending permeates our public discourse, yet the concept of living within our environmental means still escapes mainstream economics. That will have to change. "Balancing nature's books" could be the simple language that enables the green movement to resonate with the public. Imagine opening a letter from the bank over breakfast to learn that, instead of your usual overdraft, you had an ecological debt that threatened the planet. I wouldn't want to be there when the bailiffs called for that one.

Andrew Simms's Ecological Debt: the health of the planet and the wealth of nations is published this month by Pluto Books (£12.99 from www.plutobooks.com)