“The climate policies of wealthy nations are colonialism in green. Pursuing climate ambitions at the expense of the world’s poorest people is not only hypocritical but also immoral, unjust, and a prime example of egregious green colonialism.”
The present era, known as the Anthropocene according to geologists, acknowledges the significant influence of human activities on the Earth’s land, atmosphere, and oceans. This term recognizes that human actions have had a major impact on the climate and natural ecosystems. However, some scholars argue that it assumes the climate crisis is a result of inherent human nature, rather than the actions of a specific group of individuals, such as colonialists, capitalists, and patriarchs. Furthermore, the term implies that the Earth was stable until recently, around 1950, when the ‘Anthropocene’ is believed to have begun.
This perspective overlooks the history of exploitation experienced by marginalized communities over centuries under these systems. Indigenous scholars have also raised concerns about how the term represents colonialist ideologies that sever the profound connections between humans, plants, animals, and the soil. Instead of valuing the Earth as a precious entity that sustains life, Western colonial legacies often operate within a framework that assumes unlimited extraction of natural resources, with the expectation that the Earth will replenish itself.
Climate colonialism is an increasingly discussed phenomenon which has come to prominence due to the current climate crisis. It involves countries and corporations, mainly located in developed countries, imposing policies on African or other developing nations that damage their environment for economically motivated advantages such as resource extraction or generating cheap labor opportunities abroad. This not only increases inequality but also entrenches existing colonial relationships between global North and South even further. By perpetuating extractive economic practices, environmental exploitation through carbon-intensive industry operations intensifies both historic injustice (e.g., slavery) and ongoing neoliberalism of our world’s most vulnerable regions.
There are two main perspectives to consider when examining the intersection of climate change and colonialism. Making this connection involves understanding that historic injustices are not confined to the past – their impacts are still felt in the present day. The first perspective focuses on the historical causes of climate change. It emphasizes that the Global North, comprising developed nations, bears the primary responsibility for the current climate crisis. In fact, Global North countries are responsible for emitting over 92% of carbon emissions. However, it is the Global South nations, which also bear the brunt of poverty resulting from exploitative colonial activities, that suffer the most severe consequences of climate change, particularly in the form of extreme weather events.
A 2022 report from Greenpeace UK aptly stated, “The environmental emergency is the legacy of colonialism.” This injustice has sparked a growing movement calling for climate reparations. Essentially, it calls upon wealthy countries in the Global North, who have played a significant role in causing climate change, to financially support the countries in the Global South that bear the least responsibility for its causes but suffer the most from its impacts. This call for reparations has its roots in the recognition that the effects of colonialism continue to persist.
A commitment was made by wealthy nations in 2009 to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries by 2020 through 2025. Regrettably, as of 2023, this promised funding has yet to be fully delivered in any given year. This delay raises concerns and frustrations, as it hampers the ability of the most vulnerable countries to respond effectively and address the consequences of climate change.
Climate colonialism is taking another form through the exploitation of resources in the Global South by countries of the Global North in order to advance their own climate agendas. The University of Oxford describes this as occurring under the guise of “development projects” and “carbon offsetting,” enabling Western countries and corporations to continue polluting while disproportionately affecting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities in both developed and developing countries. Moreover, many of these solutions involve displacing Indigenous populations from their lands, leading to widespread violations of human and land rights.
A clear example of this exploitation can be seen in Global North-supported afforestation and reforestation projects, which have been found to involve human rights abuses, land seizures, and violence in various regions of Africa, Latin America, and Indonesia. As Vijaya Ramachandran, director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute, emphasized in 2021, pursuing climate ambitions at the expense of the world’s poorest people is not only hypocritical but also immoral, unjust, and a prime example of egregious green colonialism.
The acceleration of carbon emissions began with the process of colonization and the subsequent industrial revolution it spurred. However, ecological destruction did not come to an end with the decline of colonialism. The current global production system, still dominated by imperial powers and former colonial nations, continues to play a significant role in driving climate change and environmental degradation. The promotion of the so-called ‘green revolution’ in many former colonies, intended to enhance agricultural yields, heavily relied on the intensive use of chemicals that have had detrimental effects on soil quality and freshwater sources, leading to pollution.
While many world leaders are quick to criticize the populist government in Brazil for its thoughtless destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, it is important to recognize that large-scale clearances and burnings have been primarily driven by the logging industry and the clearing of land for livestock breeding, both of which cater to exports destined for Europe and the United States. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, extensive deforestation has been directly linked to the palm oil export industry. This reckless extraction of natural resources to supply raw materials to wealthier nations may benefit local elites monetarily, but it worsens the issues of food and water insecurity while exacerbating the marginalization of disadvantaged communities.
Scholars have highlighted the historical connection between colonialism and the mindset that allows land and oceans to be used as dumping grounds, regardless of their location. Although there are regulations in place to control pollution levels, certain levels of pollution are still permitted. In Canada, for example, the oil and gas sector, which extracts tar sands on Indigenous reservations, is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this results in tribal communities losing access to clean water and facing high levels of air pollution. These commercial activities rooted in colonialism continue to encroach upon Indigenous land.
Furthermore, the extraction of oil and gas is driven by the production of plastics and other disposable products consumed primarily by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. The burden of dealing with plastic pollution, through recycling or incineration, is often placed on developing Asian countries. Such practices stem from the inequitable international trade set up by former colonial empires, which exploit developing nations by compelling them to dispose of hazardous waste at a low cost. This unjust arrangement is commonly referred to as waste colonialism. Curiously, despite its reputation as the world’s largest plastic waste exporter, Germany has been hailed as the top recycler by the World Economic Forum. Each year, Germany exports more than one million tons of plastic waste, surpassing any other EU country. This contradiction raises questions about true recycling practices and underscores the need to address the systemic issues perpetuated by waste colonialism.
The climate policies of wealthy nations are colonialism in green. It is worth mentioning that during COP26, Nordic and Baltic countries proposed that the World Bank should fund clean energy solutions in developing nations, including technologies like green hydrogen and smart micro-grid networks. However, it is contradictory that Norway, one of these countries, continues to produce petroleum despite advocating for clean energy solutions.
Green hydro energy is often regarded as one of the most intricate and expensive technologies in the energy sector. In contrast, northern industrialized nations continue to prioritize the production of natural gas for Europe. To address price concerns, the United States has recently increased its oil production.
China and India frequently face criticism for their high emissions and reliance on coal to generate electricity for their populations. On the other hand, countries like Canada and the United States have the highest per capita emissions globally, primarily due to their heavy dependence on fossil fuels for personal luxuries such as private jets, yachts, and cars. Interestingly, the demand for private jets is soaring to the point where there is now a shortage, as evidenced by recent media coverage.
In a moment of great significance in 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made a notable inclusion in its sixth report, addressing the impact of global warming on our planet. For the first time ever in the history of the IPCC, the term “colonialism” found its place in the report summary. The IPCC highlighted that both past and present forms of colonialism have played a direct role in intensifying the vulnerability of particular communities and locations to the consequences of climate change.
Instead of challenging the flawed logic of excessive accumulation and commodification, the global environmental agenda has been overshadowed by the idea of green capitalism, which lacks the transformative capacity to effectively tackle the escalating climate changes that now pose a threat to the very existence of our planet. As we approach the forthcoming climate negotiations at COP28, it is crucial for nations to recognize that climate change is a problem that has been largely shaped by the industrialized north and the ongoing influence of imperial economic patterns on our way of life.
Merely continuing to pursue economic dominance through the same imperial industrial powers that contributed to the climate crisis will not address the monumental challenge of global warming. Unless we address the persistent legacies of imperialism and colonialism, we can hold little hope for achieving environmental justice and effectively mitigating climate change.
It is imperative that we collectively engage in a process of re-education centered around decolonization, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of how our world operates.
Only then can we begin to envision and work towards a future that breaks free from the exploitative structures and institutions that currently bind us.