Colonialism, climate change and climate reparations
Climate scientists confirmed that this July was the world’s hottest month on record. In response, UN secretary general, António Guterres has said that the era of global warming has ended and “the era of global boiling has arrived”. Professor Sir Bob Watson, former head of the UN climate body, announced earlier too that he believes the target to limit global warming to 1.5C will be missed.
These are alarming pronouncements, especially to poor and climate-vulnerable countries because of their high dependence on natural resources, and their limited capacity to cope with climate variability and extremes. The situation could indeed get worse. Based on current government commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Climate Action Tracker predicts that global temperatures will rise to 2.7°C. There will be a significant worsening of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
However, these warnings do not imply that everyone around the world will experience climate change in the same way. Rather, it will get much hotter in some parts of the world. More than ever, we need to remember that not everyone emits the same quantity of greenhouse gases, and therefore are not equally responsible for the climate crisis. Historically, countries that industrialised earlier and became rich by unrestrained emitting bear the greatest responsibility for much of the global warming and ecological destruction we face today.
Industrialisation and capitalism also encouraged the building of empires in the colonial period. Most countries with the highest climate vulnerability and those most vulnerable to climatic destabilisation were formerly colonised countries. Because of this large disparity in emissions and wealth earned alongside those emissions, the rich countries of the north owe the poorer nations a “climate debt” and must pay climate reparations. Climate justice movements started to call for reparations at the UN climate negotiations in 2008. Bolivia officially introduced climate debt in the negotiation in 2009.
Climate change is intimately linked to colonialism
For the first time in more than three decades since its inception, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mentioned the link between “colonialism” and climate change in the Summary for Policy Makers section of the 6th IPCC Report, published in 2022. The report said: “Present development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many indigenous peoples and local communities.” It is very important that leading climate scientists have acknowledged that colonialism is a historic and ongoing driver of the climate crisis.
This reinforced the call by climate justice advocates for climate reparations and fortified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change provision on the obligation of the global North to extend climate finance to, and share technology with, the countries in the global South. It goes to the heart of climate change politics and, indirectly, also to global politics and economics. It highlights the central question of historical responsibility and who owes whom for what.
Connecting climate change to colonisation involves recognising that historic injustices are not relegated to history, and remain in many ways unresolved. Colonial legacies are alive in the present. The colonial grabbing of land not only dispossessed people of territories and resources, it also altered what were previously sustainable native ecosystems. Addressing the effects of climate change cannot be achieved without also addressing the legacies of colonialism. Climate justice movements globally have long campaigned for the recognition of the unequal effects of climate change on different groups of people.
Colonial overhaul of society and nature
Countries and companies scrambled to acquire control of new territories to gain access to lands and extract resources from them. New territories were viewed as business enterprises and sources of metals, crops and minerals to further the power of empires. The local inhabitants of colonies were unjustly treated as commodities to be traded as slaves, obstacles to be suppressed and removed or workforces to be subjugated.
Colonists used violence to destroy the governments and society that already existed to impose their order and commercial relationships. Religion was also employed to strengthen the hegemony of empire’s new culture and social norms. Indigenous communities have long talked about how colonialist ideologies severed the deep precolonial ties and interconnections between humans, plants, animals, and the soil. Animist societies like pre-colonial Philippines consider humans as part of nature and treated nature as precious entity that gives life.
Colonialism erased local knowledges and silenced the practitioners of such knowledges through oppression and negation of the culture and customs to complete the appropriation of territories and dominions. Since the beginning of imperialism, colonisers have had damaging effects on the ecosystems of the territories that they invaded. Settlers overused land, animals, and natural resources across the globe. This is not to say that the elites in colonised countries are not to be blamed. They were co-opted and also lived privileged lives as reward for their loyalty to colonist masters.
British colonists invaded lands and territories and entirely reorganized the agricultural system of the regions colonised by the British empire. India’s land, previously used for low-scale subsistence agriculture, was reorganised for cash crops such as cotton and tea. Local peasants were subjected to forced cultivation to grow crops and forced employments to afford taxes. The Indian domestic economy and manufacture base were destroyed and replaced by an economy geared for export to international markets.
Desertification and deforestation have colonial roots too. French colonizers in North and West Africa banned rural communities from practicing their centuries-old subsistence farming methods in the end of the 19thcentury. The locals were forced to cut down forests and replace them with cotton plantations and other cash crops throughout French Equatorial Africa, the areas from the Congo River into the Sahel. This massive deforestation produced extensive environmental degradation.
The global North’s expanding climate debt to the global majority
Colonialism was never a peaceful process. Violent acts of dispossession went with widespread massacres, forced removal of people from their land as experienced by First Nations communities and forced separation of children from families.
Injustices and dispossession, however, continue to current day. Transnational corporations, the new global empires, are continuing the practice of dispossessing indigenous and marginalised populations of their land for minerals, oil, gas and other resources. The current global infrastructure that gives power to corporations of wealthier countries to extract natural resources from poorer peripheral countries continue the destabilisation of what were often sustainable native economy and cultures.
With the emerging global consensus that climate change is the biggest threat to humans and therefore requires a global solution, a new green colonialism is also emerging. Green grabbing, the foreign appropriation of land and resources for environmental purposes, is resulting in replicating patterns of unjust development and giving a new face to colonialism.
Understanding climate debt and climate reparations collectively require a lot of re-educations that should start with decolonisation to fully understand how our world functions and how the economic and climate apartheid continues. We can only build an alternative future if we break from the patterns of exploitative and unjust colonial past.
Acknowledging climate debt and the need for reparations are essential elements of climate justice. It is part of a system of measures, which also includes debt cancellation, a just transition from fossil fuels, and ending corporate impunity.