Review: ‘Colonialism and Climate Change’

By Amelia Cooper.

A panel held at Common Ground’s inaugural symposium welcomed Dalia Gebrial, a campaigner who currently works for People & Planet, and Leon Sealey-Huggins, an academic who focuses on the social relations of climate change, to speak alongside Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want, at a panel chaired by student campaigner Lily MacTaggart. Their shared message was clear: the discourse on climate change requires a radical overhaul, and should be reframed as a question of climate justice.

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L-R: Leon Sealey-Huggins, Asad Rehman, Dalia Gebrial and Lily MacTaggart. Photo credit here.

 

“…the discourse on climate change requires a radical overhaul, and should be reframed as a question of climate justice.”

The narrative surrounding climate change in the global north tends to centralize polar bears, melting ice caps, and decapitated trees. It is presented as a scientific and purely environmental issue, with industrial causes that are often portrayed as part and parcel of modern life: small changes (encouragement of public transport and recycling, for example) can be suggested, but not to the detriment of our lifestyle. Issues are portrayed as technological, and requiring management in kind: a research-based fix for the abstract problem of the ozone layer or annual temperatures.

In the global north, these issues are divorced from the human suffering triggered by environmental changes: the destruction of the homes and livelihoods of frontline (often indigenous) communities, the vast majority of whom are located in the global south. More than 700, 000 people die each year from climate related deaths, and yet – as noted by Asad Rehman – there is a crisis of empathy, justice and solidarity in the discourse of the climate movement.

“The history of climate change, and that of colonialism, are one.”

Such a narrative shift is prerequisite to addressing the power asymmetries in resource extraction, past and present. Dalia began by highlighting that ‘the history of climate change, and that of colonialism, are one’: the structures through which oil and other natural resources continue to be aggressively extracted were imposed by colonial powers. It is no coincidence that the ongoing costs of resource exploitation are borne by people of colour, while the lion’s share of profits are enjoyed by people and corporations far removed from their suffering. Oil exploration by transnational companies has become the face of neocolonial endeavors, continuing the centuries-old proprietary attitude of the global north towards resources in the south.

However, inequalities of power are not limited to resource control. Leon noted that they have permeated the global climate regime (i.e. the summits and joint initiatives directed towards tackling environmental change), which continues to reproduce the problematic social relations rooted in the colonial period. In the same way that developing countries in the late 20th Century were required to adhere to IMF structural adjustment programmes (and the system of global capitalism) to gain access to aid and political support, countries of the global south are now required to adhere to international declarations on emissions and environmental management.

“He described the 2016 Paris Agreement as a ‘death sentence to the global poor,'”

There is nothing specifically wrong with many of the plans adopted, but the limited agenda-setting powers of countries in the south, and the coercive methods employed by dominant nations (such as the United States) to gain their compliance, serves to perpetuate inequality at the level of international governance. The manipulation of programmes such as REDD+, through which countries in the global north pay those in the south to offset their carbon responsibility, reproduces imperial dynamics and has been the subject of significant bodies of literature.

Furthermore, the privilege enjoyed by leading powers on the international stage is reflected in attitudes towards the lifestyles in those countries. Asad argued that the model of exploitation and consolidation of elite power at the transnational level underpins a prioritization of the American way of life, without taking account of the costs that this way of life has for populations in the south. He described the 2016 Paris Agreement as a ‘death sentence to the global poor’ and a ‘poisoned chalice’, and argued that energy needs to be reconceptualized as a global social good.

Advanced countries “divert the conversation by emphasizing technological innovation, lulling people in to the false belief that a scientific “quick fix” will soon redress the damage wreaked by climate change.”

The richest 10% of the world are responsible for more than 50% of emissions, and yet advanced countries are reluctant (to say the least) to commit to significant cuts. Instead, they often seek to divert the conversation by emphasizing technological innovation, lulling people in to the false belief that a scientific “quick fix” will soon redress the damage wreaked by climate change.

The contemporary environmentalist movement and discourse has little space for addressing these issues. It continues to neglect the experiences and voices of frontline communities due to the prioritization of a depoliticized narrative on climate change (the polar bears rear their head again), and in doing so, drives a wedge between the symbolism and human cost of climate change. Each of the speakers emphasized the importance of making narrative interventions in conversations surrounding climate change – something that Common Ground, as a movement, recognizes and embodies. Climate change and its effects are a matter of justice. The people affected by it deserve no less than a movement that recognizes that.

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