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We must decolonise the environment

By Katie McKay

Colonialism shifts the blame for global warming – the West must take responsibility for destroying the planet.

The Global South is responsible for climate change. Or, at least, that is today’s environmental narrative. At a glance, this notion could be true. China is famously the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases today, with India, Indonesia, and Iran also making the list. Within five minutes of thinking, however, it is clear to see this idea has deep roots in imperialism, colonialism, and racism which is still very much alive in the 21st century. 

The reality is the effects of colonial rule remain in affected countries, even 300 years later. Imperialism damaged the Global South beyond recognition, and many nations are only just beginning the process of recovery. To limit global warming and climate change, we must first address the legacies of colonialism and how we begin to rebuild nations in a postcolonial world. These countries need help, rather than blame.

Before delving into the historical facts of climate change, I would like to state that the history of imperialism encompasses enslavement, violence, and murder by Europeans of indigenous people. While the humanity of this history is clearly imperialism’s biggest impact, and something we must always bear in mind, I am instead focusing on the environmental aspect. This is for the sake of examining global environmental histories, and in an attempt to decolonise the history and politics of climate change today. 

Climate worries are a modern phenomenon – a baby in political discourse. Born around the beginning of this century, we are the oldest generation to grow up worrying about the planet. While it may seem completely normal to us due to its discovered urgency and prominence in the media, climate fears are perhaps comparable to Cold War threats in our parents’ generation. This means that the history of climate change as a scientific field is less than 30 years old – long after colonial rule ended. 

As a field, environmental science essentially doesn’t take history into account. Yet in science, as in life, nothing can be considered outside of a historical lens. Cumulative carbon – carbon emissions added up throughout time – is scarcely discussed in popular conversation. The Global South has comparatively small emissions when considered in a historical context. 

Cumulative carbon emissions are key, considering human activity has had the biggest influence on climate change. Once emitted, carbon dioxide is essentially permanent – at least on a human timescale. Carbon emissions from previous centuries continue to heat the planet: they are not going anywhere. We cannot continue to blame the Global South just because they emit more greenhouse gases right now, when Europe’s colonial and industrial pursuits continue to harm the planet today. 

The Carbon Brief Analysis estimates that we only have 7.5% of our carbon budget left to spend for a 50% chance of capping global warming at 1.5°C. When examining carbon emissions since 1850 – essentially where records begin – former colonial powers including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are much more consequential in historical emissions than that of today. Former colonies including India and Indonesia are less prominent historically than when compared to present-day emissions. 

Aside from the undeniable scientific evidence of environmental wrongdoings of the Global North, colonialism has had less obvious but equally as devastating impacts on the planet. The capitalist world order as we know it today was arguably set up by imperialism, which globalised world trade and our relationship with commodities permanently. Capitalism is the single worst thing to have happened to the environment. The overproduction of unnecessary goods is killing our planet, before we even mention the human cost. The roots of capitalism and the beginning of the end lay within European imperialism.

The consequences of this event were not constricted to the 18th century. Not only is the Industrial Revolution built on the funds generated through the evils of the British Empire, it has changed the face of the environment forever. The biggest period of growth in Britain’s history allowed our society to be transformed into a consumerist model that relies on finite resources polluting our planet. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences will be felt for generations to come, if not forever. 

The environmental movement desperately needs decolonising. The very study of the environment is Eurocentric. Environmental history is examined through continents instead of regions; we must stop focusing on the study of global warming through a continental Eurocentric lens. 

Instead of penalising the Global South for historical inequalities, we must help developing countries grow in a sustainable way, minimising any further harm to the environment. This allows countries to help populations out of poverty while recognising years of colonial rule and systemic oppression. Growing foreign economies in a sustainable way allows for a step away from the oppression suffered under European colonial rule. 

The West must stop the continuous refusal to accept blame for climate change. Owning up to our historical responsibilities is crucial, not only in preventing global warming and decolonising the environmental movement. We have an obligation to face up to the human impact of imperialism and its consequences.  


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