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Understanding climate colonialism

August 14, 2022
topics: Climate Change
by: Chermaine Lee
located in: Japan, Norway, Denmark, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Myanmar, Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Vietnam
tags: climate change, colonialism, indigenous people, IPCC, reparations

Nations throughout the Global South have fought for climate reparations for years, arguing that they are bearing the brunt of carbon emissions emitted by their wealthier counterparts in the Global North.

In 2009, their strong demand at Copenhagen's COP 15 prompted a pledge of USD $100 billion annually to help them adapt to the changing climate.

The Global North is currently responsible for over 92 percent of cumulative carbon emissions, but the Global South is found to suffer the most from extreme weather events - many of which are exacerbated by human-caused climate change - with the worst in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Haiti. 

However, a 2020 OCED report found that the richer nations have never reached the promised $100 billion, paying only about half of the sum in 2013 and 2016 despite a yearly increase of climate finance by richer to poorer nations. What’s worse is that instead of providing the promised fund, a majority of the climate finance from high-income nations to low-income countries took the form of loans.

The 46 poorest nations were found to only account for 17 percent of the climate finance scheme between 2016 and 2020. 

The concept of climate colonialism has become increasingly prevalent in international discussions, with the media reporting a heated debate over compensation for climate damages at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June this year. The 2022 IPCC report has also included the term 'colonialism' for the first time, signaling its recognition of the issue. 

What is climate colonialism? 

In the modern context, climate colonialism often refers to the exploitation of resources of the Global South by Global North nations for their green agendas.

Carbon offsetting is often found to be a practice by which wealthy countries purchase the right to release a larger amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) than they'd agreed on and invest in carbon sequestration facilities in the Global South to compensate for that. 

Moreover, many Global North-backed projects for afforestation and reforestation projects, for example, have been revealed to involve human rights abuses, land grabs and violence in Africa, Latin America and Indonesia. They include removing communities from their homes and having so-called "green police" shoot people who enter the forests they had lived in for generations. 

The Norwegian company Green Resources’ afforestation project for carbon offsetting in Mozambique, for instance, barred local communities from accessing water resources, rivers and roads. It even walked back on its promises to create job opportunities and build infrastructure for locals after having indigenous leaders sign contracts to lease their land, knowing they did not fully understand the terms. 

All the while, rich nations’ campaigns to switch to electric vehicles and smartphones drove up demand for cobalt, a metallic element usually sourced from countries in the Global South. In 2019, a group of Congolese families sued Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla for aiding the death and injury of their children working in cobalt mines. The plaintiffs argued that these companies had been aware of child labour in the supply chain. 

Japan's nuclear conflict

When countries are switching to renewable energy, indigenous communities in the Global North suffer as well, according to Dr ann-elise lewallen, an associate professor at the University of Victoria specialising in indigenous studies, energy policy and environmental justice.  

"Marginalised communities living in the Global North are like a pocket of the Global South in the Global North, as they aren’t benefiting from the fossil fuels extracted from or buried in their land," she told Fair Planet. "They shouldn’t be bearing the burden from the Global North." 

The researcher penned a book that looks at settler abuses in northern Japan.

The Meiji government of Japan annexed the island of Hokkaido in 1869, took over resources like minerals and forests and did not recognise the indigenous Ainu people living there until 2008.  

Tokyo historically classified Ainu as an "inferior race," and supported energy projects in Hokkaido like the construction of fossil fuel power plants. It now proposes to store Japan’s toxic nuclear waste in Ainu (ancestral) land amid the country’s efforts in switching to renewables. 

"The government now seeks to bring nuclear waste by digging a facility underground in Hokkaido’s Suttsu and Kamoenai," Dr lewallen explained. "Last fall, the Ainu community came together and said 'we don’t want to live with waste [on our ancestral land] because no one knows how radioactive it remains.' "

Environmental injustice aside, the expert said that settlers also broke sustainable practices of indigenous people with their land. 

"One early pattern of settler colonialism is to remove indigenous people from their homes, including their relationship with nature," she said.

"For example, the herring industry on Hokkaido’s coast was central to Ainu lifeways. In the past, and now, Ainu held ceremonies and interacted with fish through traditional sustainability, but Japanese colonisers exhausted these resources. That relationship has been broken." 

"Marginalised communities living in the Global North are like a pocket of the Global South in the Global North."

Inclusion is the way forward

Indigenous peoples were found to adapt to the impacts of climate change in creative ways. A UN report showed that villagers in Bangladesh created floating vegetable gardens to protect their livelihoods from flooding, and communities in Vietnam helped grow dense mangroves to ease storm surges. 

Including indigenous peoples who are often severely impacted by climate events in discussions is the key to enacting environmental policies with fairness, Dr lewallen suggested.  

"They have to be a central part of the conversation," she said.

"Green tech is just bringing a greener form of capitalism, and it will continue human rights abuse until you empower indigenous peoples to find their own ways. You will have a broken economy.

"Climate solutions have to go hand in hand with indigenous people. Indigenous peoples, and the teachings of the land they carry, must be centered in decision making."


Image: Dibakar Roy

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Chermaine Lee
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Japan Norway Denmark Zimbabwe Mozambique Myanmar Haiti Democratic Republic of the Congo Bangladesh Vietnam
Demonstrators hold a sign reading "The climate crisis is colonialism," during the Fridays for Future global protest in Mexico City on 25 March, 2022.
© Pedro Pardo
A woman holding a placard against colonialism during the Global Climate Strike in Utrecht on 24 September, 2021.
© NurPhoto
Tokyo historically classified Ainu as an "inferior race." It now proposes to store Japan’s toxic nuclear waste in Ainu ancestral land.
© STR
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