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Are we to carry the white man’s historical burden again?

When researchers assess communities’ vulnerabilities to climate change, they look at an area’s physical, biological and human systems. But new research suggests they might want to look at historical injustice, too. In a research published in 2020 in the journal PNAS, a pair of archaeologists examined the climate in the islands of the Caribbean and southwestern Indian Ocean, and found ways changes have been magnified by histories of colonization and injustice. Caribbean islands face increasingly intense hurricanes fuelled by warming oceans, and those threats are expected to grow along with human-caused global warming.
The researchers found that colonization forced residents of island communities to move away from resilient ways of building homes. Archaeological excavations in places throughout the Caribbean have revealed a history of round buildings with deeply embedded posts made of strong local wood and lightweight thatched roofs. But after islands were colonized, European household architecture took over. Today’s homes are made of reinforced concrete, not locally available materials, and are easily overwhelmed during hurricanes. That makes it harder to survive and rebuild after intense tropical storms.
This research amply explains the real cause behind the fact that we are living in one of the most consequential periods of human history as the climate crisis has emerged as the most daunting, existential threat to life on Earth with constant, tragic reminders of its catastrophic effects ranging from never-ending wildfires to arctic temperatures. The menace of climate change is rooted in the exploitation and degradation of the planet, peoples and cultures, which were the foundational principles of colonialism. Rooted in white supremacy, the impacts of colonialism on current challenges and solutions to climate change are seldom explored.
From the subcontinent to Africa, and Africa to the Americas, colonialism as an ideology sought to enrich Europeans at the expense of all else while extracting resources and treating many Indigenous people as commodities. Under the guise of its civilising mission, colonialism perfected extractive economic systems which were often portrayed as signs of benevolence. Consider, for instance, the massive irrigation schemes launched by the British in the Indian subcontinent, or in Egypt, which were not meant as a gift to the local populace but motivated by the need to supply cotton to feed the mills in Manchester. Indentured labour was moved from several colonies to rubber and sugarcane plantations across Southeast Asia and the Americas.
This argument is supported by the fact that in 1700, the annual per capita incomes in India and China were roughly similar to those in England, France and Spain – at around $700 (adjusted for inflation at today’s prices). But, by 1900, per capita income in India had slipped to $625 but that in England had risen to $4,300.
With wealth, however, came an unwelcome guest: global warming. At first, the signs were slight and mostly ignored. As temperatures around the world continued to rise, the West woke up to this new menace: collateral damage from two centuries of breakneck industrialisation. “The rich world has seen incredible development on the back of enormous increases in mostly fossil fuel energy. A couple of hundred years ago, most available power came from backbreaking human work. Even by the end of the 1800s, human labour made up 94 percent of all industrial work in the United States. Today, it constitutes just 8 percent. If we think of the energy we use in terms of servants, each with the same work power as a human being, every person in the rich world today has access to 150 servants who clean, cook, drive, heat and do almost everything else for them. Even if all OECD nations cut their entire CO2 emissions today, the standard climate UN model shows it’ll reduce warming by 2100 just 0.4°C. Rich countries want the world’s poor to pay the costs through carbon tariffs,” wrote Bjørn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, in an op-ed published on March 30th, 2021.
Hence, the process of colonisation and the Industrial Revolution saw carbon emissions being spewed out at an alarming rate. The global emissions rate then kept worsening over time. But, the situation has now changed drastically. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s largest polluters today are China, which emits 10.07 metric gigatons (GT) of CO2 every year, followed by the US (5.41 GT). India is third with emissions of 2.65 GT. The picture changes rapidly when per capita emissions are calculated. Saudi Arabia is the biggest polluter per capita. Each Saudi emits 18.48 tonnes of CO2 per year. The US is fourth worst with each American emitting 16.56 tonnes of CO2. China is thirteenth on the list (7.05 tonnes) and India, twenty-first (1.96 tonnes).
Ecological destruction did not end with the withering of colonialism. The current global production system, dominated by imperial and former colonial powers, remains a major driver of climate change and environmental degradation. The so-called ‘green revolution’, which was aggressively promoted across many former colonies to boost agricultural yields-relied on intensive use of chemicals which have degraded soil quality and polluted freshwater sources. Aggressive damning and water diversion for irrigation may have helped produce more crops, but it has disrupted the natural flow of rivers into the sea, resulting in sea water intrusion, salinity and water logging.
Most world leaders are quick to blame the populist government in Brazil for its unthinking destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which is the world’s largest tropical forest. Yet, millions of acres of this rainforest have been cleared and burned to supply the logging industry and clear land for livestock breeding to be exported to Europe and the US. In Southeast Asia, massive deforestation has also been directly linked to the palm oil export industry. This reckless extraction of natural resources to supply raw materials to richer countries may be lining the pockets of the local elites but it is exacerbating food and water insecurity, and compounding marginalisation of the masses.
Poor countries are now bearing the brunt of climate impacts which they did not create. But, the West now wants the under-industrialised nations like Pakistan to cut down emissions and slow their economic growth. It needs to be remembered here that Pakistan is highly vulnerable to climate change and despite being a nation that emits less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases, the country’s cities are facing a dangerous fifth winter season due to smog and air pollution. Per capita, Pakistan produces only 1.06 tonnes of carbon dioxide, whereas the global average is 4.5 tonnes. Pakistan’s contribution to global cumulative carbon dioxide production, as of 2020, was 0.3% while India has contributed 3.21% whereas the US and China have contributed 24.56% and 13.89%, respectively.
The West had promised to compensate developing countries to mitigate losses suffered in meeting climate change goals. The target was $100 billion a year. That has never been met. Worse, over half the amount given has been structured as loans—to be returned with interest. This fact was highlighted by Pakistan’s Senator Sherry Rehman while she was speaking at the 143rd Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference in Madrid recently.
“Climate negotiations need to factor into the needs of low polluters who are paying the cost for decades of fossil-fuel development by rich countries. Yet the resources needed for adaptation by countries like Pakistan are not even part of serious commitments made at multilateral forums,” she said.
Urging vulnerable developing countries to adopt renewable energy is a good thing but expecting them to acquire smart technology with no resources to adapt their national energy grids to green energy, or turn into agri-tech users when countries that have used fossil fuels to build and grow their economies either look the other way and remain in denial about the costs of resilience,” Ms Rehman asserted.
The West does not want to share its burden of responsibility. Even the efforts made by developed countries to ‘mitigate’ climate change have been half-hearted as most global climate efforts have focused on mitigation. For instance, the latest US commitments to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030 are more aggressive than previous commitments but still fall short.
Climate adaptation, which focuses on responding to the changes already expected, has not seen the same amount of intellectual or financial investment as mitigation. The urgency for climate adaptation stems from a collective global leadership failure to mitigate climate change thus far, as indicated by CO2 emissions surpassing 420 parts per million in April 2020. The critical importance of climate adaptation is also underscored by major global organizations such as the World Health Organization, the Global Center on Adaptation, and the United Nations Environment Programme.
Another aspect that is seldom mentioned is the neocolonial nature of many false climate solutions. Under the veil of ‘development projects’ and ‘carbon offsetting’, Western countries and companies can continue to pollute as normal, which disproportionately affects both developed and developing countries. Further, many of these solutions involve displacement of indigenous populations from their lands leading to widespread human and land rights abuses.
The consequences of environmental degradation have impacted people across the world for hundreds of years. In recent decades, however, the negative socioeconomic and health impacts of global problems, particularly climate breakdown, have fallen disproportionately on those least responsible. The climate breakdown and other global environmental problems have meant very direct challenges to communities in the Global South because the area have generally been a sacrifice zone through many years. The plundering of the Global South has gone on through slavery through colonialism and right now ongoing imperialism. In terms of global warming, the impacts have been very clear.
Now, there is an urgent need to contend with the root causes of climate change and environmental degradation: colonialism and capitalism. These systems originally meant to kill and dispossess indigenous people have directly harmed the environments shaped by their stewardship. The lack of acknowledgment for these historical root causes of the current climate crisis has hamstrung our ability to ensure equitable climate adaptation for the most socially vulnerable and historically marginalized communities. To infuse justice into climate policies, we must challenge colonialism in every form. No apology can erase the West’s original sins of colonization and genocide. However, an apology must be followed by tangible actions, especially in the climate change context.
The writer is a Lahore-based analyst.

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