Climate and Colonialism: Some Columbus Day Thoughts

Is climate change itself a form of colonialism?

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” That’s what we learned in my grade school. Today, Columbus Day remains a day of celebration for some but has become a symbols of colonialism for others. Rather than entering that debate, I’d like to reflect on how issues of colonialism might relate to climate change.

The study of colonialism and post-colonial societies is now a major academic focus. I don’t purport to be an expert on that. It seems to me that, at its core, the idea of colonialism revolves around two key concerns. The first is economic exploitation, meaning that one society is gaining economically at the expense of another. That could take the form of extracting resources (including land) for less than full value or seizing them. It could also include imposing costs, whether financial, human, or environmental on the other country.  The second concern is political domination, meaning that the autonomy of either the other country as a whole or parts of its population is impaired. There are undoubtedly other possible concerns, such as displacing local cultures, but let’s focus on these two.

Efforts to by developed countries to incentivize preservation of tropical forests have given rise to claims of “carbon colonialism.” Those claims seem strongest to me when the preservation schemes are imposed, sometimes with government support, on local inhabitants.  Backers of the incentive systems have made efforts to meet those concerns by giving local inhabitants more of a rule in decision making. Some critics, however, view any economic incentives for forest preservation as being a colonialist interference in internal affairs.

One complication is that many of the pressures on forests are external to begin with. For instance, destruction of rainforest in South America is partly driven by global demand for soybeans, a good deal of which comes from China. Another complication is that logging in the handful of nations with the most important forests will cause climate change that is devastating to other developing countries, not just to the “colonialists.”

The debate over carbon colonialism has obscured two other important forms of exploitation of developing countries by powerful, more economically developed nations.  The first is the sale and construction by more affluent, powerful countries of coal fired power plants in developed countries.  China has been one culprit here, although it recently announced a change in policy. There are several arguments that might support considering this a form of colonialism. In terms of economic exploitation, a coal plant  may impose large health and environmental costs on the other country. It may also turn out to be an expensive stranded asset as other sources of power become increasingly dominant globally. On the political side, such transactions may reflect and strengthen undue local political influence or may even involve corruption of local officials. The country making the sale profits from the transaction, while local benefits may be illusory. Thus, we should be worried about “coal colonialism” by developed countries.

The most important form of climate colonialism, however, could be the continued emission of vast quantities of carbon by more affluent countries.  These continued emissions benefit the more affluent countries by saving them the costs of emission reductions, while the most serious harms will fall on the countries and populations that have the fewest resources to protect themselves. In other words, continued emissions transfer wealth from poor countries to rich ones. That’s economic exploitation on a grand scale. There’s also evidence that climate change may lead to political instability in vulnerable countries, so climate change may also be a form of interference in local political autonomy.  Colonizing the climates of developing countries is certainly something we should be concerned about.

Perhaps next year we could add a new line to the verse I learned in school. The lines could go something like this: “

In fourteen hundred and ninety two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

In twenty two hundred and twenty two,

Rich countries wrecked the climate too.



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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Climate and Colonialism: Some Columbus Day Thoughts”

  1. Also Never forget:

    Greta Thunberg most recently stated the consequences of world environmental leaders who have failed to protect the human race against global warming after 30 years of “empty words and promises” amount to a generational “betrayal.”

    The most inconvenient Truth is that not only will “climate change — lead to political instability” but current events in Washington Us/Them politics are proving beyond all doubt that chaos is already destroying our future as a Democracy and gravely threatening our Civilization.

    It’s time for intellectual and political leaders to implement solutions today or there may very well be no acceptable living conditions by the end of this century, especially since we have already wasted 70 years with your “blah-blah-blah” since the first Earth Day.

  2. Yes, I made a typo, the first Earth Day was in 1970, only 50 years ago not 70, half a century of “emplty words and promises.”

    I was just curious, based on what Greta has been exposing about environmental leaders, whether you actually think about what the “impure” public says (per Hofstadter) instead of just the “blah blah blah” that environmental mutual admiration societies show off to each other as Grerta exposes: 50 years of “empty words and promises” that amount to a generational “betrayal.”

    Younger generations shall never be able to ignore the consequences of 50 years of “betrayal” because they shall have to suffer the consequences of increasingly unlivable environments their entire lives.

  3. The root cause of our new lifestyle with environmental disasters today is that one more lesson of history (per the Durants) has been ignored by both political and intellectual leaders who have historically destroyed civilizations because of their failures to meet their challenges of change.

    Greta’s exhortations appear to be making a difference at least in Europe, but our Congress still is not making Global Warming their supreme imperative, and our premier intellectual institutions still fail to produce implementable solutions to prevent the out of control climate changes we are experiencing today from destroying our civlization and world.

    So, one more time, the answer to “Can we adapt in time?” is most tragically: No, because time is up after half a century of “empty words and promises.”

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more