DSA: Climate Change is Imperialism’s Latest Manifestation

The Tribe Attaché is committed to a diversity of ideas. Often, international relations can be insular, with only a select few viewpoints being discussed as legitimate policy. The Tribe Attaché has partnered with the Democratic Socialists of America at William & Mary to publish a series of articles focusing on the foreign policies of the Democratic Socialist Party of America. This piece was written by Colin Sauer Cochran.

The climate crisis is already beginning. Sea level rise is accelerating as the globe warms. Hurricanes, heat waves and other extreme weather events have become more frequent and more intense in the last fifty years. Wildfires are becoming more numerous, and wildfire season is growing longer. Forests are dying in some areas, while in others, precipitation has increased by more than fifty percent. Estimates indicate that hundreds of millions of people worldwide could be forced to evacuate their homes within the next few decades due to climate-related causes. It has become quite clear, however, that climate change will not affect all parts of the world in the same way, or to the same extent. In fact, cataclysmic climate change, an effect of global capitalism, reinforces the same hierarchies and power relations that imperialism and colonialism set in place.

To be clear, capitalism is not solely the cause of climate change. Industrialization, the primary factor behind the exploitation of fossil fuels, and thus, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, is not a phenomenon exclusive to capitalism. However, once the effects of emissions on the environment were discovered, the inaction that followed was the result of an economic system that privileged individual profits over the collective good. The decisions of fossil fuel corporations to ignore risks, shift blame, hide evidence, produce misinformation, and stall legislation on climate change were made to protect their bottom lines. The jobs of executives at Exxon Mobil or the American Petroleum Institute depended on serving one function: delivering the most profit to their investors. If we lay the majority of the blame at the feet of individuals, we miss the structural reality. It was the foundational mechanism underlying the free market—that each individual and firm seeks the most for themselves—that prevented any significant action to counter global warming.

Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2014

This inaction is directly responsible for the cataclysmic effects of global warming that we have begun to see. Cruel injustice lies in the distribution of these effects. On an individual and regional level, those most responsible for climate change will largely be those least affected by it. Barring massive redistributions in wealth, those who directed and profited from fossil fuel usage will be fine as global disaster sets in. Either they will have passed away in comfort after long lives extended by the assortment of medical treatments available to those of their status, or they will have the resources to move inland or to the north, places where the effects of climate change will be limited, if not pleasant.

The predicted regional effects of climate change reinforce this same disparity. Here are maps that show CO2 emissions from production and consumption in 2014, and emissions per capita in 2017, which together are a decent, if imperfect, metric for assigning blame for climate change on a country by country basis.

The map below shows each country’s 2016 ND-GAIN Index, which represents a combination of its vulnerability to climate change and capacity to adapt to it.

What is immediately obvious from these maps is that the countries most responsible for emissions, largely the Global North, are the least vulnerable and most ready to adapt, while the Global South deserves little blame for climate change, yet will fall victim to most of the havoc it wreaks. While the first set of maps do only show recent emissions numbers, historically the Global North has been responsible for 79 percent of carbon emissions.

This pattern mimics existing political and economic global power structures. Impoverished countries will largely be hit the hardest by climate change, and this is only partially due to unfortunate geographical or pre-existing climatic causes. South Asia, for example, is more susceptible to flooding than most of the world because of its monsoon season and proximity to sea level. Similarly, Central Africa’s year-round exposure to solar radiation makes it more prone to heat waves. These factors address why the Global South is most vulnerable to climate change, but not the reason it is least prepared. This factor is due to hierarchies first set in place by global imperialism, and sustained by neocolonialism.

Here is the basic mechanism that undergirds the disparities in this new environmental imperialism: During the period of industrialization, imperial powers of the Global North extracted wealth from their colonial holdings in the South, using this wealth in part to finance their burgeoning industries. This served to enrich the imperial power, weaken its colony, and set the world down the road to climate change, as fossil fuels began to be used to power industrial equipment. To the present, the enrichment of the Global North at the expense of the Global South continues through neocolonialism, with the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor for corporate profit. This long-term enrichment of the Global North at the expense of the Global South has allowed the former to prepare much more effectively to climate change than the latter is able to, because it has the resources and wealth to do so.

For much of the Caribbean, the colonial period never truly ended. Of the thirty-five existing polities, only sixteen have gained statehood, with the other nineteen remaining under Western control. The history of genocide, slavery, and exploitation in these colonies has been well documented. Even states like Haiti, who gained independence earlier than most, were subject to continuous military and economic interventions by colonial powers. After centuries of exploitation, these nations have weak economies, which prevent them in the present from favorable borrowing on international financial markets, and their trade remains dominated by Western powers. The Industrial Revolution in the Global North was in part funded by slavery and unequal trade relationships in these colonies. Today, the Caribbean is one of the most vulnerable regions to the effects of the climate change that this industrialization accelerated. Among other threats, rising sea levels could swallow considerable amounts of land in small islands, while supercharged hurricanes and tropical storms will threaten lives and livelihoods and damage infrastructure. Puerto Rico, which has suffered for centuries under Spanish and American domination, and where the population still does not enjoy full citizenship rights, received minimal help after Hurricane Maria ravaged its electrical grid and killed thousands.

In South Asia, a similar pattern emerges. There has been a significant European imperial presence in India and the surrounding states since the mid 17th century, with the arrival of the British East India Company. By the beginning of the 19th century, the joint-stock company had come to dominate the entire Indian subcontinent. South Asian wealth was extracted by the British with such swiftness that that the Indian use of the word “loot” entered the English lexicon. At the same time, British goods saturated South Asian markets, compounding the enrichment of the colonial power. The British actually dismantled thriving industry in South Asia as part of their conquest, so that Indian raw materials could support Britain’s own industrialization. South Asian factories, to this day, produce cheap goods for western corporations while paying slave wages to those who labor in their dangerous conditions. After centuries of resource drainage, South Asia houses two-thirds of the world’s poor, and now, climate disaster is an impending challenge. Conservative estimates at sea-level rise would put a fifth of Bangladesh underwater, displacing 30 million people. Heat waves in India’s northern regions may soon make major population centers completely uninhabitable, displacing millions more. Conversely, the U.K. will experience some warmer, drier summers, and some heavier rainfall, but nothing on a comparable scale.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Per Capita

In Africa, the unequal relationship repeats again. African slave labor on plantations in the Americas helped finance industrialization. New Imperialism resulted in the brutal carving up of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by European powers. Extraction of resources, including the brutality of Belgian rubber plantations in the Congo, created wealth for European nations at the expense of African economic sustainability. Palm oil production in Africa for western consumption continues this imperialist legacy today, as corporations continue to profit despite vast environmental devastation. Africa is already seeing extreme heat waves, and the Congo region is one of the most vulnerable on earth to a changing climate, according to its ND-GAIN Index. Meanwhile, the countries that put African people in bondage continue to exploit African resources, and are far more responsible for the changing climate than any African nation, and yet they will see far less devastating effects of this climate change.

The global disparities that climate change will exacerbate are not results of imperialism; they are a new manifestation of imperialism. This crisis is a modern iteration of the North-South relationship that has developed over the last five centuries. Irrespective of existing disparities, the exploitation of fossil fuels enriched the Global North for decades prior to the mass destruction in the Global South we now expect to see. When accounted for, these existing disparities that imperialism and neocolonialism set in place serve to compound this injustice. The Global South, after years of exploitation that funded Northern industrialization, will become the main victims of that industrialization.

How do we, Democratic Socialists in the Global North, respond to this? What we must not allow is a sort of eco-fascism: continued diminishing of global resources, firm closing of borders for those who seek to escape the worst effects of warming, and only self-interested increases in climate resilience at home. False narratives that blame high birth rates in the Global South for climate change, and must be fought against. If we are truly just, if we truly believe in valuing human lives equally, we will do everything we can to mitigate climate destruction for the entire world. This means rapidly divesting from fossil fuels, and distributing our resources to strengthen infrastructure and increase climate resilience in the Global South. It means offering vast amounts of humanitarian aid, and providing temporary and permanent resettlement for the millions who will be forced from their homes. If we are truly just, sheltering the victims of the crisis we created will be a moral imperative. But only if we are truly just.


1 Comment
  1. Wow! Great article, Colin! Very well researched–wondering if action from the Global North should be inspired for reasons other than solely a moral imperative? If moral imperatives chiefly did not stop previous forms of imperialism, what makes climate change different?

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