Climate justice and decoloniality

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In November this year, the Scottish port city of Glasgow was the host of an event that once again brought the urgent question of climate change to global focus: COP26.

The United Nations has invited signatories to its Framework Convention on Climate Change to a “Conference of the Parties (COP)” every year for almost 30 years. This year’s summit in Scotland was the 26th such gathering.

COP26 was well organised and received significant media attention. But like most climate summits that came before, it failed to achieve any meaningful results.

“One of the biggest fights at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow,” as the New York Times newspaper stated in a November 12 article, was “whether – and how – the world’s wealthiest nations, which are disproportionately responsible for global warming to date, should compensate poorer nations for the damages caused by rising temperatures.”

This question is at the heart of the issue of climate justice for without addressing it the urgent task of mitigating climate change degenerates into richer nations continuing to pollute the earth and destroy the environment while gathering in useless conferences to feel better about themselves.

The roots of these rich nations being “disproportionately responsible for global warming” is much older than these 26 conferences. “Rich countries,” the same New York Times report points out, “including the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe, account for just 12 percent of the global population today but are responsible for 50 percent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years.”

One hundred and seventy years before now places us smack in the middle of the 19th century – which puts these rich nations at the peak of their colonial plundering of the earth. Central to the question of climate change is, therefore, the history of US and European imperial and colonial conquest and destruction of the globe, and the current predatory system of globalised capitalism it gave birth to – a system that requires products to be engineered in Silicon Valley, California, produced in sweatshops in India or China using materials from Africa, and shipped to stores in New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and beyond.

Any time a cargo vessel is stuck in the Suez Canal for a few days we feel how widespread and rooted is this network of planetary savagery that began with the European domination of the globe and continues apace damaging the earth.

Colonialism and environmental decoloniality

It is not accidental that the rich nations responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions  – the US, Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands and 15 others – are also the former colonial powers of the world.

While Europeans were ruthlessly subjugating peoples across continents and recklessly destroying their local knowledge, philosophies of life, cultures of cohabitation with the earth, and natural habitats, they were entirely oblivious to the fact that they were also ravaging the earth. The main consequence of the European so-called Industrial Revolution was not only colonial conquest but also the environmental calamities we witness today. The Europeans called their savagery “modernity”, the rest of us called it “colonialism”, but its overreaching effect on the planet we all live on was the ongoing climate crisis.

What did European colonialism entail? Mass production of commodities that enriched European nations and impoverished their colonies. This required cheap labour and raw material. As such, wherever they went, the colonisers not only dismantled the sovereignty of nations they “modernised” but also depleted their natural resources. As they enslaved people and stole their resources, Europe’s colonising barbarians also drained the Earth of its life-sustaining riches and paved the way for climate catastrophes.

As the Spaniards and the Portuguese mined Latin America for silver and gold, the French, the Germans, and the Belgians pillaged Africa’s resources, and the British made their awful tea with glorious Indian crops, their elites back home feasted on these stolen riches, but remained entirely oblivious to the gradual destruction their production visited on the Earth.

As minerals were mined and exploited around the globe, and as grasslands, rainforests, woods, jungles, marshes, and wetlands in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were cleared to build European-owned factories, quarries, plantations, ranches, railroads and highways scarce anyone paid any attention to the terror that was being visited upon the Earth. As rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans became the graveyard of industrial waste, the Europeans deemed it not a problem. As the mass slaughter of animals for their skins and organs left Indigenous populations struggling to survive and several species on the brink of extinction, European merchants, adventurers and industrialists focused on their growing fortunes. Amid all this destruction and savagery, colonisers kept sending their priests to the colonies to tell those they enslaved to continue to turn the other cheek – until, eventually, the Earth itself run out of cheeks to turn.

Today, these countries that have historically ravaged the planet to enrich their powerful are still damaging the world more than any other. “India as a whole produced about 7 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions this year, roughly the same as the European Union and about half of the United States,” the New York Times report explains. “But India has far more people than both regions combined, and is much poorer, with hundreds of millions of people lacking reliable access to electricity.”

What therefore needs to be done is not gathering all nations of the world at conferences like COP26 and lecturing them about reducing CO2 – which is not only unjust but useless. The rich countries – the colonisers who are responsible the most for this calamity – must pay the cost of global warming, reduce their production and fix the inequality of resources and income they created that is crippling the world.

A national, regional, or global uprising of the poor against the rich is no longer the expected scenario of our future. The planet Earth itself is already revolting – but not in a clichéd or metaphysical sense. And the Earth is not only revolting against the rich, against spoiled brats like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk who have started to explore a life beyond this planet we all call home. It is revolting against the rest of us too – who have no such delusional fantasies. The rich and the wretched of the earth are sitting on a ticking bomb – while the UN entertains its member nations in useless conferences and refuses to hold these rich powers accountable for the terror they have visited upon the Earth.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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