Colonial Climate Politics
What do we mean when we go out on the streets and call for climate justice?
That the climate crisis does not affect all people and places equally, many people are aware of that. But what should not be forgotten is that many of the solutions being put forward at the international level threaten to repeat colonial patterns of dispossession and sacrifice of Indigenous communities, people of color and the Global South.
That the climate crisis is intimately linked to colonialism is widely documented. Yet this connection was not recognized until 2022 by the IPCC, the international authority on climate science. In over 30 years of scientific reports, this connection remained unmentioned. Burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, mining and intensive livestock farming – the main direct causes of climate change – are all linked to colonial domination and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. For example, the large-scale extraction of fossil fuels could only take place by appropriating the land and bodies of ‘others’, of Indigenous and colonized people. With the ultimate goal: economic gain for European governments and corporations. Still, Indigenous rights are violated and ecosystems are destroyed daily under the guise of progress and economic growth.
Colonial international climate negotiations
That international climate policy is also marked by colonialism is clearly visible at the climate conferences, the COPs, which take place every year. During the COPs, governments from all over the world come together to negotiate how to tackle the climate crisis. Western negotiators are often honored here as saviors of the climate: for example, Mark Rutte was declared a true “climate pope” in Madrid in 2019. What has received far less attention, however, is the fact that both inside and outside of official negotiating spaces, delegations from the Global South and Indigenous communities have been speaking out most loudly for climate justice for decades, and playing a leading role in decisive and just climate action. For example, Papua New Guinea was the first country to submit a formal plan for climate action under the Paris Agreement, and Indigenous Hawaiians are leaders in climate policy, planning and adaptation.
That only government delegations are invited to the official negotiations further means that Indigenous peoples are not represented at the negotiating tables. An international political system based on the nation-state is eminently colonial. After all, nation-states came into being as a result of colonization. The world’s diversity of Indigenous Nations and ways of governing and living together had to make way for colonial rule. The nation-states that emerged after formal decolonization continued the pattern of colonial oppression in most cases. At COP26, Indigenous delegations held a protest in memory of the at least 1,005 activists who have been killed since the Paris Agreement for defending their lands and life on earth. One in three of them is Indigenous. This is indicative of the way in which the governments that are allowed to sit down at the COP treat earth defenders.
Although the role of Indigenous communities in climate action is increasingly cited in international negotiating spaces, they are still excluded from actual decisions. This was only exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Partly because Western countries appropriated the lion’s share of vaccines, it was even more difficult for Indigenous delegations and delegations from the Global South to gain access to the negotiating tables. This is despite the fact that Indigenous peoples, only 5% of the world’s population, protect some 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and Indigenous knowledge is crucial in the fight against climate change. Indeed, Indigenous communities have access to thousands of years of knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, on how best to care for the land.
Colonial climate policy
Not only are Indigenous communities routinely excluded from climate negotiations, but the outcomes of these negotiations have been characterized by colonial relationships. Consider, for example, the 2°C warming limit agreed to in the Paris Agreement. This 2°C limit was called a death sentence by delegates from small island states and by activists from the Global South, including Vanessa Nakate. In setting this goal, the starting point was not protecting the people hardest hit by the climate crisis, but primarily what Western leaders see as “politically feasible” so that economic growth is ensured. While world leaders hide behind rhetoric about saving humanity, the goal of the Paris Agreement is primarily to protect the profits of large corporations, for which the lives of the majority of the world’s population are sacrificed without issue.
Similarly, the solutions put forward to stay within the 2°C – or 1.5°C – limit are a continuation of colonialism. Indigenous organizations like the Indigenous Environmental Network therefore call these “false solutions” – solutions that work for big business and political leaders, but not for the people and places affected by the climate crisis. For example, emissions trading and other market-based measures are central to the Paris Agreement. Indigenous communities fiercely resist this. There are the so-called “nature-based solutions” – the restoration of forests and wetlands. These are mainly used by companies in the Global North to continue emitting greenhouse gases, but to ‘compensate’ for this by, for example, planting forests in the Global South. Consumers are also enticed in this way to offset their emissions when booking a plane ticket or at the gas station.
“Nature based solutions”
Instead of keeping fossil fuels underground, oil and gas companies use these measures to continue tapping new sources, which would be ‘climate neutral’ thanks to compensation. In addition, these ‘solutions’ encourage the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Many of the compensation projects take place on the land of (Indigenous) communities in the Global South. Forest protection projects under REDD+ have been frequently criticised for this. The communities that live in and from the forest are chased off their land or denied access. This while they often take care of these forests, care that is now taken over by commercial parties, often causing the quality of ecosystems to deteriorate rapidly. For example, companies make profits by ‘protecting’ forest that was not under threat, or by building ‘green’ infrastructure on land that was used for the livelihood of entire communities, while the same companies cut down forest further away for the extraction of fossil fuels.
One example is the French company Total, which wants to develop new oil projects in the Republic of Congo and off the coast of Suriname. The company is trying to compensate for these projects with ‘nature-based solutions’: in Suriname by paying the government to protect forests, and in Congo by planting trees in a savanna area. This project is extremely controversial, because both the oil drilling and the planting of the forest threaten to destroy rare ecosystems, and therefore may have a counterproductive effect on the natural storage of CO2. In addition, the projects violate the rights of local communities.
Economic growth is no solution
Colonial relationships are also rearing their heads when it comes to the transition to sustainable energy. The energy transition is mainly seen as a technological problem. This can be seen in the European Green New Deal, which focuses on ensuring economic growth through innovation and increasing efficiency. However, the idea that economic growth can be decoupled from ecological impact has been frequently undermined. The ecological impact of the ‘green’ infrastructure needed for the energy transition – batteries for electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines – is mainly outside Europe. Consider the mining of lithium in Chile, Bolivia and Peru, an essential metal in the ‘green transition’. This takes place without permission on Indigenous land and the Atacama desert is sacrificed for it. The greening of the EU thus comes at the expense of land and lives in the Global South, continuing colonial relations – something the Green New Deal is silent about. Fortunately, there are other options; for example, Equinox wrote a proposal to make the Green New Deal more equitable and rid it of colonialism.
Finally, colonial relations are all too evident in the fact that industrialised countries refuse to take responsibility for their role in climate change and ecological devastation in the Global South. For example, one of the divisive issues at the last COP in Glasgow was the refusal of the EU and US to discuss additional measures to compensate countries in the Global South for the damage they suffer from climate change, and to provide financial support for climate mitigation and adaptation. Although rich countries already promised $100 billion a year in climate finance in 2009 – a fraction of what is needed – this promise has still not been fulfilled. Compensation is seen as “aid” or a sign of “goodwill,” rather than reparations to which countries in the Global South are entitled after centuries of looting and plundering and the climate devastation it has caused. In addition, what funding there is is primarily made available to governments, corporations and NGOs, rather than to communities themselves.
Thus, international climate politics is still fraught with colonial relations, and the solutions put forward by governments play into further exclusion, dispossession and destruction of land and (Indigenous) communities. There is a need for solutions that work for the people and places hardest hit by climate change and ecological devastation – and that have restoring relationships with each other and with the earth as their starting point. In doing so, Indigenous leadership, sovereignty and knowledge must be at the heart of the process, or climate policies are doomed to fail.