Climate Change is Colonialism

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In 2019, 11,000 scientists declared a “climate emergency” in Bioscience journal. This followed a special report by the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations in 2018. The report argued that policy makers should attempt to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, to avoid consequences that will be “long-lasting or irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems.” In 2021, the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC led the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) to declare that it must sound the “death knell for fossil fuels.”

According to the World Meteorological Organization, global temperatures are already at 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. G20 countries are projected to miss the 1.5°C target by a wide margin, according to the Climate Transparency Report 2020. The Climate Transparency Report has found that Canada is one of the worst emitters in the world on a per capita basis. In the lead up to COP26, more than 100 developing countries set out their negotiation demands as these nations are already suffering the worst impacts of climate change. Key speeches from southern nations such as Barbados, Uganda, and Kenya, among others, recognized this and begged for greater urgency from industrialized northern nations, which have the greatest financial capacity to address the climate emergency and the most room to reduce emissions. A recent study published in Nature has found that there is less research on climate change in the global south, even though the region is at risk for the worst impacts. The region also has the smallest carbon footprint. Coming out of COP26, the world is on track to reach 2.4°C of global warming this century.

Chart showing Worldwide Co2 emissions
Tom Schulz developed the variwide chart “Worldwide CO2 Emissions”. The total CO2 emissions of a region is represented through a rectangular area. The height of each rectangle is proportional to the CO2 emissions per capita and the width is proportional to the population of the represented region. The regions are sorted by CO2 emissions per capita, from the highest to the lowest. “File:2018 AQAL Group variwide chart ‘Worldwide Co2 emissions’.jpg” by AQAL Group and Tom Schulz is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

It is increasingly obvious that climate change is a contemporary manifestation of colonialism and arguably a natural outcome of imperial policies from previous centuries. However, what is less often discussed are the historical economic and political patterns that were enshrined through colonialism, and which continue to lead to global warming. The structures and institutions of colonialism also continue to impact our ability to address the climate emergency. The United Nations and its agencies were established well before anyone envisioned the contemporary globalized world with problems such as climate change and pandemics that defy national boundaries because of the fast and frequent global movement of people and emissions. These are problems that require transnational and even international cooperation to achieve solutions.

“It is increasingly obvious that climate change is a contemporary manifestation of colonialism and arguably a natural outcome of imperial policies from previous centuries.”

The League of Nations was forged in an age of colonialism and the early UN was dominated by security concerns at the beginning of the Cold War. Perhaps even more importantly, many of the modern economic patterns that the industrialized north has come to depend on were forged in the era of colonial expansion. This is especially true of modern fossil fuel sectors. Environmental historian Corey Ross has effectively documented the history of the imperial development of industries such as cotton, cocoa, rubber, mining, and oil in Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire: Europe and the Transformation of the Tropical World.  Importantly, he takes a macro-European imperial history approach. This is the history of how industrial wealth and economic dominance were built.

Ross argues that “few aspects of the modern world, and Europe’s role within it, can be understood without reference to” the energy shift towards coal that took place at the end of the nineteenth-century (p.199). Ross maintains this was followed by rise of petroleum at the beginning of the twentieth century, which he says was even more concentrated as a source of energy than coal. Ross also argues that “its chief physical characteristic – fluidity and a higher energy-to-weight ratio than coal – had important social and political implications. For one thing, they made oil easier and more cost-effective to transport over large distances, which meant its production and distribution tended to operate on a more global scale than other sources of energy.” This led to the rise of large multinational corporations (p.200). Ross further argues that “oil thus became a source of immense power over the course of the twentieth century, and as such it influenced the geography of Europe’s empire in numerous ways. The context for control over oil flows was a key element in the closing stages of the European expansion, especially in the waning Ottoman Empire.” (p.201) This led to the situation in which multiple wars have been fought in the Middle East over petroleum resources. OPEC’s high level of control over the global price of oil is a recent reminder that the region will likely dominate the industry as the world moves away from fossil fuels.

A recent study published in Nature Energy suggests that OPEC countries will likely be the last standing in the global fight to dominate the declining oil industry, as renewables become more important. The authors of the study expect Canada’s oil industry will be priced out of a declining global industry soon after oil reaches peak demand. Renewables, batteries, and hydropower will arguably be to this century what petroleum was to the last century. It is important to ensure that wind, solar, battery, and hydro projects are done in ways that are respectful of Indigenous persons, communities, workers, and the environment. A just transition cannot be about repeating the mistakes or colonial patterns of the last century. 

Climate protest outside of OPEC conference 27 in Germany
Climate protest outside of OPEC Conference 27 in Germany. December 2019. “Klimaprotest-at – Eröffnung der OPEC Tagung 27” by System Change, not Climate Change! is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In the meantime, developing southern nations require financial support to immediately address the impacts of climate change that are already here. Vijaya Ramachandran recently argued in Foreign Policy that “rich countries’ climate policies are colonialism in green.” Ramachandran describes how at COP26, the Nordic and Baltic countries suggested that the World Bank should finance clean energy solutions in the developing world “such as green hydrogen and smart micro-grid networks” while Norway keeps producing petroleum. Green hydro is “possibly the most complex and expensive energy technology that exists,” while northern industrialized nations continue producing natural gas for Europe. The United States just increased oil production to bring down prices. China and India are frequently attacked for their overall emissions and because they use coal to produce electricity for their citizens. Meanwhile, countries such as Canada and the United States have the highest per capita emissions in the world as the industrialized north relies heavily on fossil fuels for private jets, yachts, and personal automobiles. Recent media coverage demonstrates that private jets are selling so fast that there is a shortage.

“As we move forward with implementing the Paris and Glasgow Agreements, nations must be cognizant of the fact that climate change is a problem that was created by the industrialized north and the imperial economic patterns that continue to influence how we live.”

As we move forward with implementing the Paris and Glasgow Agreements, nations must be cognizant of the fact that climate change is a problem that was created by the industrialized north and the imperial economic patterns that continue to influence how we live. The massive problem of global warming will not be addressed by continuing to pursue the economic dominance of imperial industrial powers that created the climate crisis. Historians of the environment and colonialism have an important role to play in educating all of us on these issues as climate change continues to emerge as the most important public policy issue of our time, and probably the biggest issue of this century.

Feature Image: “Stop the C02lonialism,” At the Quebec Climate Camp. Marcus Johnstone. August 10, 2010. Flickr Commons.

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Lori Lee is an Instructors in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her Ph.D. is in global and imperial history from the University of Exeter, focusing on the global movement of ideas in the nineteenth century. Her current research interests include the resource curse, environmentalism in the history of international thought, and women and climate justice. At present, Lori Lee is working on her first monograph for SUNY Press. She has also been a contributor to CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, The Globe and Mail, Canada's National Observer, and The Hill Times. Lori Lee has been a vocal advocate in her public scholarship of the need to move away from the development of further oil projects in Canada, and the problems with mega dams in recent Canadian History. She has advised national environmental groups on the political economy of climate change and a just transition off fossil fuels and appeared in national media on the topic. Lori Lee is also pleased to be a member of the NICHE editorial team.

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