[Written by Sophie Cassel (she/her)]
[Image Credits: Nina Bialová (she/her)]
Content Warning: Contains discussion of the impact of colonialism and exploitation.
As the global climate emergency unfolds, the effects of climate change are increasingly and disproportionately felt by citizens in the developing world. The World Bank has projected that the Global South will bear 75% of the costs of climate change, yet it is the least equipped to deal with the gravity of these risks. While the governments of developing nations recognise the threat of global warming, climate change adaptations have been haphazard, mainly due to a lack of wealth and infrastructure to properly prevent and mitigate the intensifying consequences. Low-lying, densely populated coastal regions in Southeast Asia including Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia have experienced a surge in floods and anticipate catastrophic flooding in the near future. The cities of Jakarta, Indonesia and Lagos, Nigeria have been especially impacted by rising sea levels, as severe flooding becomes an annual experience. Many deaths that occur during and following floods are attributed to hygienic consequences from poor infrastructure for drainage and sanitation systems. And terrifyingly, a growing number of islands – the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati’s Islands being just several examples – are literally drowning and risk being entirely wiped off the map.
Dominant framings typically reduce the climate crisis to a technical problem, to be solved by advances in technology and infrastructure. While this of course holds some truth, this technology-focused narrative leaves many questions unanswered. How is it that the developing world emits a mere 10% of global emissions, yet will – and already does – bear the brunt of environmental damage? Why do those countries whose emissions are primarily responsible for global warming continuously escape accountability? Questions such as these highlight how crucial historical context is to understanding the uneven impact of the climate emergency.
In order to understand climate injustice, we must look back to the colonial era. Colonialism involved the systematic exploitation of one half of the world’s resources and people in order to build the wealth of the other half. In this process, the colonial powers underdeveloped what is now known as the “developing world”. This is a crucial, yet routinely erased, historical fact. This is because when divorced from this history of exploitation and slavery, the term “developing” suggests that poor countries have always been in a state of poverty. In many ways, this historical amnesia has allowed Neo-colonial forms of economic, cultural and economic power to persist.
Driven by boundless economic growth, western countries and multinational corporations continue to foster global inequality as they strip today’s developing world of its wealth and resources.The undergirding notion of international development is that “traditional” societies can be helped to reach the same level of development that western countries enjoy. However, this hegemonic narrative of benevolence has in many ways perpetuated the underdevelopment of the Global South. Structural adjustment programs enforce cuts in healthcare facilities, welfare and public services in many developing economies. As the climate crisis already disproportionately affects these regions, such programs strip developing nations of the facilities required to help those who are most vulnerable. Moreover, foreign aid contributions (the preferred and misrepresentative term for historical reparations) have made developing countries increasingly dependent on – but also further indebted to – developed nations.
The term “colonialism” may have been blotted out of western vocabulary, but its legacies remain very much intact. While the richest nations continue to grow their wealth from stolen resources, those resources flow back into the Global South in the form of waste and environmental destruction.
Due to the historic overconsumption of the West, developing nations have repeatedly voiced their demands for reparations at international climate negotiations. Climate talks have however been marked by developed nations recasting their interests as universal. In their rejection of a key OECD study, South African representatives said that the OECD figures, which have become the negotiating stance of western nations, were not determined in consultation with developing countries. At the Paris Agreement it was stated that Article 8 for loss and damage “does not involve or provide any basis for any liability or compensation”. While the Paris Agreement does suggest that richer countries should be given greater responsibility to reduce carbon emissions, the attritional slowness and repeated roadblocks faced by climate agreements have failed to set this vaguely set aim into concrete policy. The unevenly balanced power relations of climate negotiations has further been reflected by remarks from the head of the OECD that developing countries should “stop fighting old battles”.
The global media has been no less stained by Neo-colonial discourses in its coverage of climate activism. While Greta Thunberg’s popularity is a major step forward for the global climate movement, countless youth activists in the Global South are rarely, if ever, named by the media. Those youth activists who do make an appearance in the media are often labeled the Greta Thunberg of their country, despite many having begun their activism long before she started hers. The media thus constructs the developing world as being in a state of passivity – in need of saving and entirely reliant of the West to do so.
Climate activists in the developing world, and increasingly those in richer nations, promote a central message: Combating the climate emergency requires a pursuit of social justice in general. More and more, climate activists are calling for a rejection of western-dominated neo-colonial and patriarchal structures and modes of thinking. They are imagining a different world – one in which we learn from our history and realise that we are strong in our connectedness to ourselves and to our earth. This fight for a better, more inclusive, and just future is what may ultimately save our planet.