*By Jonalyn C. Paz
After years of climate denial, diversion, co-optations by the elite, and control of climate narratives, the lived realities of climate change and its profound implications for the future can no longer be ignored. Using the component of risk as a framework to understand the extensive, interconnected, and irreversible impacts of climate change at a planetary scale, the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report placed great emphasis on the deep entanglement of climate systems and human society. It admitted that “climate change has caused substantial damages” and irreversible losses on ecosystems, human settlements, and populations across the globe, with the least equipped region needing to endure the hardest blow.
In the SWANA region, the former United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa stressed the devastating consequences of the 1.5 degree increase in global temperature. Housing 12 out of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the planet, SWANA is projected to suffer an array of intersecting crises on agricultural production and food security, public health concerns, armed conflict, continuing poverty, drought and wildfires, as well as large-scale human displacement. The Max Planck Institute predicts that, before the end of this century, most cities in SWANA will become uninhabitable. Warning against the influx of climate migrants, the World Bank Groundswell report estimates more than 216 million displaced people by 2050, with Sub-Saharan Africa as its hotspot.
All these claims and predictions, however, rest in some projected future scenarios. International venues for climate negotiations often fail to take into account that catastrophes have already fallen on the regions that still bear the lingering impacts of colonialism. For instance, according to the United Nations, a significant portion of the African continent has been warming by more than 1 degree since 1901. More than a century later, in 2021, heavy rains inundated the city of Aswan in Egypt. This led to the collapse of public infrastructure, the displacement of more than 200 families, and injuries and deaths.
In addition, the summer of 2021 also brought at least 50 degree Celsius spike in the temperature in SWANA. Iraq and Iran bore at least 51 degrees Celsius. Kuwait recorded 53.2 degrees Celsius while Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia experienced over 50 degrees. Despite these recordings, institutions and platforms such as the UN and COP26 remain “theaters of climate colonialism” where the sway and influence of corporations, capitalists-bureaucrats in government seats, and self-serving elites hold the power to command global discourses and hard-decisions.
Dominant climate narratives revolve around the depoliticized discourses of environmental determinisms. More so, they continue to attribute the realities of climate change to the homogenizing, totalizing, and hegemonic notion of the Anthropocene. First introduced in 1980 by Eugene Stoermer, an American biologist, and subsequently popularized in 2000 by Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, the Anthropocene concept conveniently places the unprecedented disruptions in Earth systems and biosphere processes under human dominance. At the same time, the concept provides an intellectual space and political refuge where the five centuries of economic plunder and oppression, specifically of indigenous communities, people of color, and women, are concealed and continued.
This concept sweeps aside the externalization of environmental harms while accumulating capital and structurally appropriating injustices. Although the basic foundation of the Anthropocene is already deeply lodged in the groundless dualism between ‘nature’ and ‘society’, the period that set off the aforesaid era is still widely debated. Discourses on the inception of the Anthropocene epoch revolve around at least two periodizations: First, the 18th century, and specifically the Industrial revolution and its use of carbon and methane for production; and second, in 1945, when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki dispersed radioactive particles across the globe.
However, both years erroneously define the notion of the “Anthropos” as class-less, race-less, gender-less, and devoid of power hierarchies. Situating their argument on the reduction of carbon dioxide measured through the Antarctic ice cores, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin proposed 1610 as the inception of the Anthropocene era. Prior to 1610, in the 1500s specifically, nearly 50 million indigenous persons were massacred in the Americas. This genocide led to the collapse of agriculture, forest regeneration, and a dramatic dip in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the 1600s. This positioning not only enables us to consider more encompassing circumstances surrounding the phenomena but also sheds light on the existence of a temporal gyro where colonialism and climate change intersect. This intersection fuses continuities and breeds casualties and continuities of casualties.
This starting point also captures the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. The centuries following the beginning of colonialism up to contemporary times witnessed the colonization and occupation of “nine-tenths of the surface territory of the globe”. This period also lived through the birth of petrocapitalism, primitive accumulation of capital, and accumulation by ceaseless dispossession. Perhaps more importantly, this periodization lays bare the events that transpired during the construction of the Western empire. Outside its enclosures, lands were appropriated, natural resources were siphoned, indigenous communities and people of color were enslaved and subjected to genocide, and cultural heritage was pillaged and transported to colonial spaces. Up until the recent times, these spoils had been used to justify the atrocities committed against those colonially labelled as ‘savages’ while celebrating the victories of the European civilizations.
These colonial ontogenies were followed by a series of equally exploitative and politically catastrophic events. Global economic order and neoliberal policies were imposed across space. Extractivist industries were deployed and countries outside the West were converted into sacrifice zones for carbon capitalism and fossil fuel economies. These, when combined, resulted in expendable communities in postcolonial domains and created the “shared infrastructure” of capital that rewards colonial powers.
Climate scientists agree that catastrophic consequences are bound to arise if the global temperatures exceed the 1.5 degree limit. Despite this, the economic order imposed by the Global North consistently operates under a delusion that equates the natural environment and its inhabitants to exploitable resources. Within this capitalist-colonial paradigm, biodiversity is nothing more than a commodity. These conditions refute the vacuous claims that attach climate crises to environmental determinism. The political dimensions of climate change contradict the attempt of Anthropocene discourse to construct a deceptive narrative that revolves around a swathe of planetary hallucinations and imagined equal shares in climate responsibility and burden. Climate reality signals the continuation of the dictatorship of the colonizers who exercise impunity over privatized profit and socialized disasters.
Transcending the assumptions of a green arithmetic that abstracts nature from society and consigns the former for the consumption of the latter, Jason Moore forwards the concept of Capitalocene. This notion contends that capitalism is central to ecological destruction. The Anthropocene posits that planetary cataclysm is the sum of human activities plus nature; this assumption, however, has no bearing in the capitalist dominion where ‘cheap nature’ is used to cash in on the natural environment and appropriate wreckage. Within the capitalist structure, the world does not matter and active participation in multi-species genocide is habitual—profitable, even.
Aside from these erroneous conjectures where countries are imagined to have equal responsibility for climate change and equal capacity in affecting climate policies, the Anthropocene concept is problematic on many other levels. On the one hand, its fictitious claim to universalism erases the unequal power relations between the Global North and the Global South. On the other hand, it relieves the Global North from its colossal accountability—despite its excessive and historical greenhouse gas contribution pegged at 92 percent as of 2015—and shifts the burden of adaptation and mitigation onto the Global South, without providing any material reparation or redress for colonial exploitation. The Anthropocene veils the creation of “dual economies” which anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon used in relation to the mainstream distortion that baptizes on-going robbery as global economy. This false homogeneity conceals the racial, colonial, and capitalist underpinnings of climate catastrophes. In the process, it naturalizes the division of the world and the isolation of its segments into bordered progress and unrestricted poverty—connected by dispossessions, colonial injuries, and transgenerational injustices. Most importantly, this totalizing construct to universalism and its claim to truth is tantamount to what Fanon calls the drowning of the “multitudes of colored people”, while simultaneously blaming them for their inability to survive in a climate-colonial world.
The Climate-Colonial World
Capitalism is a system that operates on the logic of infinite expansion in a finite world. It is driven and reinforced by coloniality, and it marches alongside the Anthropocene. Capitalism mutates, exploits, and generates revenues for the few, and delivers ruin to the many. It draws leverage from the Anthropocene’s erasure of power hierarchies and gender blindness. It resists political restructurings that are not in its favour and insists on retaining the socio-economic relationship of production—or a version of it—that brings profits, regardless of the expenditures. Above all, capitalism provides the space for the continuity of colonization, where environmental catastrophes and climate vulnerability is dispersed in an “unevenly universal” manner.
Mainstream and Anthropocene-centred approaches to climate change—from degrowth to green economy—often address the wrong problem and end up exacerbating existing disparities. Institutional spaces, where climate change mitigations and damage reparations should have been negotiated, end up normalizing eco-capitalism instead. Those spaces open greenwashing haylofts where corporations create new markets, variegate capital surplus, and wring monetary gain from ecological tragedies.
Prominent examples of this are the contemporary superpowers: the European Union with more than 20 percent energy imports from SWANA, Germany with 18 more years of continued coal use following its 2022 commitment to clean energy, and China with its growing investments in coal plants within its territories and overseas. The Gulf States also are formulating “investor-focused mining laws” to diversify their income through excavation and large-scale quarries. In Africa, havoc is caused by extractivism which produced USD 45 billion net profits primarily shared among the industry shareholders. This kind of progress is created by ecological destruction and human underdevelopment, economic inequality, and protracted civil wars.
Resource and mineral exploitation may seem promising in terms of GDP and gross exports but the claimed benefits in these statistics do not translate into improvements in the everyday life of ordinary citizens. If anything, these numbers normalize authoritarian governance and prosperity for the elites. These quasi-development practices also pave the way for the enduring exclusion of the larger segments of the population from political participation. This is accomplished through national-dependency dynamics that masquerade as foreign partnerships and local employment. The historical reliance of Europe on raw materials from postcolonial regions continues to support a helix of violence that is institutionalized, legalized, and deployed by colonial architectures.
Eco-socialist and decolonial scholars like Sabrina Fernandes and Carmen Gonzales expose the anatomy of transnational developments and their historical connections to capitalism and colonialism. Transnational projects carried out in formerly colonized countries continue to enrich the Global North by diluting the Global South into commodities and an ecological sink. Damages are magnified by the dominance of the former in global institutions that oversee climate actions and legitimize distributive and corrective injustices. This not only facilitates the denial of the historical accountability of the Global North but also authorizes the unrelenting robbery of the Global South. This worldwide arrangement cultivated the former to transmogrify into an underbelly of climate cataclysms where public dispossessions, enclosures, and confinement camps for border-crossing foreigners are upheld using colonial growth models.
Western nations subsist on expanding their capital while stacking climate vulnerabilities and subjecting outsiders to slow and incremental violence. The irreparable loss of human and non-human lives, the melting not only of the ice-caps but of day-to-day meaningful existence and routinary devastations through international partnerships ossify the Global South into a geography of transgenerational plunder. Climate institutions and policies within the framework of this colonial Westworld are structured by the Global North according to its own interests. This climate-colonial world is engineered to move forward with racial blindness, participate in ancestral erasures, draw profit from multi-species genocide, and remain complicit in the methodical pillage of “the ruins that have become our home”.
*This text is part of the Dossier IRGAC LECTURE SERIES – New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South
**All footnotes and references can be found in the PDF version