The Climate Change and Colonisation Connection

9 March 2022

09 March

By: Kera Sherwood-O’Regan

As a global climate movement, we need to move on from thinking about Climate Change as an isolated issue that can be “solved” with surface level and technological solutions. We know that keeping global temperature rise below 1.5℃ requires transformational change in our societies and economies, but our approaches to climate change and campaigns for action often fail to meaningfully address the systems and structures at the root of climate change and the harms it causes for communities.

Climate change magnifies injustice

Climate Change is caused by human systems, and it magnifies injustices and inequities within them. Prominent Indigenous Public Health Physician, and climate activist, Dr Rhys Jones (Ngāti Kāhungunu) refers to climate change as a “threat multiplier” due to its disproportionate impacts on structurally oppressed communities, such as Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other People of Colour; disabled people; Global South, and diverse SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics) communities, and the ways in which it tends to amplify these issues. 

For example, climate change impacts are disproportionately felt by those Indigenous communities whose livelihoods are dependent on primary industries and their local environment. When climate impacts like flooding and droughts impair their crops, or change the distribution of species they are reliant on, this directly affects their livelihoods and creates a “snowball effect”, also exacerbating other issues they face due to overall inequity and systemic oppression.

You can stay tuned for more of our #DecolWeek content to hear from frontline Indigenous activists about the climate impacts in their communities.

Colonisation as a driver climate change

Colonisation is one such example of systemic oppression that climate campaigners and activists need to understand to be able to take meaningful climate action. We can consider Colonisation as a root cause of climate change because it…

  1. Harms Indigenous Peoples who have lived in more sustainable relationships with our lands and ecosystems for generations, dispossessing us of our lands, and making it harder for us to exercise our kaitiakitanga (stewardship) to protect them.
  2. Imposes foreign economic systems on lands and communities where they are not fit for purpose, often drastically changing the landscape and ecology, and forcing people into high emissions and extractivist industries.
  3. Drives deforestation and biodiversity loss, resulting in less natural uptake of carbon.
  4. Enables powerful countries to externalise costs of their over-consumption. Colonial powers benefit economically from colonisation, often extracting rich minerals, natural materials, human labour, and resources from their colonies to build their wealth at home. This means that governments and publics in those Colonial powers can live resource-intensive lifestyles, driving emissions up and up, while those who have been colonised and their lands bear the cost. 
  5. Militaries contribute significantly to global emissions. The process of Colonisation often involves significant military action, and the fruits of colonisation (like the resources and wealth mentioned above) enable Colonial powers to maintain larger militaries, and take further military action.
  6. Colonisation, particularly by Western states, imposes an individualistic ideology onto Indigenous communities, that brings people out of relationship with their ecosystems and each other. This has occurred in many Indigenous communities with explicit intent by Colonisers and government policies to remove children from their communities; ban Indigenous languages; prohibit Indigenous Peoples from self-organising or accessing their cultural means of collective care, medicine, and more. Amongst the many other serious harms of these practices, this enforced individualism creates the conditions for, and the imperative to hoard resources and wealth because community connections and relationships have been disrupted, and individuals must “fend for themselves” within the Colonial economic system. 

Climate Change exacerbates the harms of Colonialism

While Colonisation can be recognised as a root cause of Climate Change, Climate Change can also exacerbate the many harms of Colonialism. Some examples of this include:

  1. Climate Change alters the distribution of “natural resources”, which may be used by countries and corporations to justify invasion or extraction from other communities and territories.
  2. Powerful countries that have already benefited from high-carbon development prevent other countries from doing the same due to concerns about climate. While concerns about Climate Change might be valid, those countries that have benefited from their Colonial pasts at the expense of others continue to reap the rewards of Colonialism to this day, and repeatedly reject attempts to be held accountable for the harm and emissions they have caused. Their refusal to compensate other countries and Indigenous Peoples for their legacies of extraction mean that those countries who have contributed the least to the climate problem are expected to bear the brunt of it – having to deal with climate impacts already occurring, without the same resources to keep their people safe.
  3. Climate change widens inequities for Indigenous and other multiply marginalised communities, as they are often hit first and worst by climate impacts, and typically have fewer protections against them while Colonisers are insulated from the most immediate climate impacts due to their wealth and geographical location.

How Climate Movements and Climate Action can perpetuate Colonialism

As activists and campaigners, we are dedicated to preventing the worst impacts of climate change, and many of us consider ourselves to be conscious, community-minded people. However, movements, campaigns, and policies intended to take positive climate action can often do harm by perpetuating Colonial thinking and power dynamics.

Key examples of this include climate movements speaking over Indigenous Peoples, appropriating Indigenous Knowledge; and tokenising BIPOC activists and organisations, whether intentionally or unintentionally. These phenomenon often occur subtly, like repackaging perspectives from Indigenous activists or organisations without acknowledgment or agreement that this is appropriate; requiring your organisation’s brand to be on any Indigenous initiatives you fund or support; co-opting Indigenous members to your organisation’s Boards or Executive Committees without appropriate institutional support and more.

We will cover this more in depth in an upcoming discussion on tokenism, so make sure you follow the rest of our #DecolWeek content.

Climate movements, and charities in particular can also perpetuate Colonialism in their marketing and campaigns, commodifying the suffering of frontline communities, who are most often Black, Brown, or Indigenous, for the consumption of typically Western and White donors. 

This will be covered more in depth in #DecolWeek content and Festival of Ideas Workshop on Ethical Storytelling and Story Sovereignty, but in the meantime we encourage you to listen to the insightful podcast discussion on this topic by the No White Saviors team.

Initiatives touted to prevent climate change or mitigate its impacts can also perpetuate Colonial harm. For example, many “Green Energy” initiatives have been reported to forcibly remove Indigenous Peoples from their territories, and violate their rights. Climate actions and policies can also cause harm by consolidating power in institutions and governments that do not uphold the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, policies set up with the intent to impose sustainability requirements on businesses, organisations, and corporations may also affect Indigenous Peoples who have been forced through colonial policies to incorporate and organise themselves into such institutional models; and other initiatives can overextend the reach of local, national, and regional governments to control lands and “natural resources” in the name of sustainability, violating Indigenous Rights to self-determination on these issues.

What can I do?

Learning about Colonisation, Colonialism, and its impacts for the first time can be challenging. As activists, we often want to leap to action when we learn about harms occurring, especially when they may be coming from our own movements or our own behaviour. However, when we jump to action without fully understanding the complex nuances of this issue, there is a real risk of doing more harm than good.

The first step to taking informed and appropriate action is listening. 

We encourage you to sit with this information and commit to learning more deeply about this issue from Indigenous perspectives. We have put together a suite of resources for this #DecolWeek, and prepared workshops at the Festival of Ideas for this reason. Take some time to learn from the resources shared over the next week, and join us in carefully considering our future actions in the Institutional Transformation sessions at the CAN International Annual Strategy Meetings next week.

In the meantime, you can help by spreading the word. If you find this resource useful, you can share it or it’s accompanying social media posts with your networks.

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