They might not be two terms you expect to see together in any context but climate change and colonialism are inextricably linked.

We’re going to take a look at why that is, and why considering the impact of historic and ongoing colonialist practices is so essential in the movement to tackle climate change.

Let’s start with a quick refresher of what colonialism means, before we dig into what it has to do with climate change. 

What is colonialism? 

Colonialism is defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people”. It generally involves one country taking control of another, often amid violence and involving killing, displacing, and/or marginalizing the existing population. 

It dates right back to empires like Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, and Phoenicia — but there have been two main waves of colonialism; one beginning in the 15th century that saw European countries colonizing lands across North and South America; and another, known as the “Scramble for Africa”, that began during the 19th century. 

Colonialism is responsible for centuries of harmful extractive practices across Global South regions, such as Africa and Latin America, that have driven wealth in the Global North, and poverty in the Global South. 

So what’s climate colonialism? 

There’s two main ways to look at climate change in the context of colonialism and, as The Conversation put it: “Connecting climate change to such acts of colonization involves recognizing that historic injustices are not consigned to history: their legacies are alive in the present.” 

The first is about the historic causes of climate change. The Global North is responsible for the climate crisis we’re currently living through — in fact, Global North countries are responsible for over 92% of carbon emissions

Yet, it’s Global South countries — which are also disproportionately impacted by poverty that also has its root in exploitative colonial activities and practices — that are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, particularly extreme weather events. 

As a 2022 report from Greenpeace UK stated: “The environmental emergency is the legacy of colonialism.”

It’s this injustice that has sparked a wave of calls for climate reparations — essentially, calling on wealthy countries in the Global North (that have caused climate change) to financially support those countries that have done the least to cause climate change in responding to its impacts. 

This was recognized back in 2009, with wealthy countries pledging to deliver $100 billion every year in climate finance to developing countries by 2020 through to 2025. It’s now 2023, and this promised funding is yet to be delivered completely in any year so far. 

The second way climate colonialism is manifesting is through the exploitation of the resources of the Global South by countries in the Global North, to further their climate agendas. 

As the University of Oxford puts it: “Under the veil of ‘development projects’ and ‘carbon offsetting’, western countries and companies can continue to pollute as normal, which disproportionately affects BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] folk in both developed and developing countries.” 

“Further,” it adds, “many of these solutions involve displacement of Indigenous populations from their lands leading to widespread human and land rights abuses.” 

One example of this, according to Fair Planet, is Global North-backed projects for afforestation and reforestation; some of which have been shown to involve human rights abuses, land grabs, and violence in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Indonesia. 

As Vijaya Ramachandran, director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute, wrote in 2021: “Pursuing climate ambitions on the backs of the poorest people in the world is not just hypocritical — it is immoral, unjust, and green colonialism at its worst."

From climate mitigation and adaptation to loss and damage, current climate solutions will remain inequitable and ultimately insufficient without centering the impact of colonialism on developing nations that have fewer resources to build climate resilience. 

What’s been said about climate colonialism? 

The conversation around climate colonialism and its related issues — such as calls for climate reparations, for loss and damage financing, and for Global North countries to take responsibility for their part in the climate crisis — has been really escalating in recent years, particularly through the voices and calls to action from activists and organizations across the Global South. 

As Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley (who’s spearheading a potentially ground-breaking climate finance solution called the Bridgetown Initiative) said at the UN Climate Change COP26 in 2021: “We do not want that dreaded death sentence and we have come here today to say, ‘try harder’.” 

Ugandan climate activist Vanesssa Nakate, following COP26, put it this way: “We cannot adapt to starvation. We cannot adapt to extinction. We cannot eat coal. We cannot drink oil. We will not give up.” 

A very significant moment came in 2022, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its sixth report on the impact of global warming on the planet, included the term “colonialism” in its report summary — for the first time in IPCC history. 

In the report, the IPCC asserted that historic and ongoing forms of colonialism have directly exacerbated the vulnerability of specific people and places to the effects of climate change. 

Who is this affecting? 

People living in developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are all grappling with the effects of climate colonialism, along with those in especially climate-vulnerable places like the Caribbean. Across these regions, millions of people have lost livelihoods, their homes, family members, and more due to the effects of climate change — particularly extreme weather. 

In the past few years, there has been a disproportionate rise in the number of climate-induced extreme weather events around the world — particularly hitting hard those regions with the least resources to respond, adapt, and rebuild. There have been unprecedented floods in Pakistan, while farmers in India have lost crops and farmland to unusual snowstorms and heat waves

Southern Africa (and Mozambique, in particular) has been decimated by a series of cyclones while the entire continent of Africa faces a constant threat of coastal erosion due to rapidly rising sea levels. 

In 2021, the Global Climate Risk Index, which analyzes to what extent countries and regions have been affected by impacts of weather-related loss events (storms, floods, heat waves, etc.) including human impacts and direct economic losses, said that “less developed countries are generally more affected than industrialized countries.”

“Our people are watching, and our people are taking note,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said at COP26, held in Glasgow in 2021. “Are we really going to leave... without the commitment to ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet? Or are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?”

How does climate colonialism impact on the mission to end extreme poverty?

Climate change is a giant obstacle to achieving the UN's Global Goals in the mission to end extreme poverty. Its impacts are already evident across education, health, economic empowerment, and in the case of climate colonialism, inequality. 

This means that tackling climate change is essential to ending poverty.

Many climate activists and organizations have been advocating for wealthy countries to step up and fulfill the $100 billion-a-year promise made back in 2009 to support climate mitigation and adaptation investment in developing countries, along with the many other ways the world's wealthiest countries can be correcting the historic and ongoing injustices of climate change. 

You can add your voice to the rallying cries too, by taking action to support our Power Our Planet campaign. Through the campaign, we're calling on world leaders, multilateral development banks (like the World Bank), philanthropists, and private sector leaders to reimagine our global financial systems to meet the moment, defend the planet, and make sure that no matter where you live, everyone is protected from the worst impacts of climate change and inequality. Find out more about the campaign and how you can take action right now to help

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What Is Climate Colonialism? What to Know About Why Climate Change and Colonialism Are Linked.

By Akindare Lewis