Most of us are now aware of the impact of climate change on the environment, yet more of us need to acknowledge that its social impact is far from uniform across the globe. Climate change is a universal issue, yet a community or country’s vulnerability to it depends on their socio-economic situation. Existing global inequalities skew the impacts of climate change such that the poorest countries not only feel them sooner, but more dramatically. This injustice is only deepened by the fact the most vulnerable to climate change, are the ones least responsible for causing it.
This inescapable truth was the recurring theme of the panel discussion “Climate change and neo-colonialism” hosted by Oxford’s Common ground last Tuesday. The event brought together three speakers equally insistent that climate change can only be tackled fairly by acknowledging the legacy of global inequality left by colonialism. The three speakers started the event by introducing themselves and explaining their engagement with climate justice before responding to questions from the host and an audience that exceeded the capacity of the room!
Gabriella Rutherford works with Survival International, an organization aiming to bring the voices of tribal peoples to the forefront of climate change negotiations and policy making. She expressed her frustration that tribal peoples are on the margins of discussion about protecting the environment despite being “the first conservationists”. We should be following their example rather than continuing down the destructive path of over-consumption which Gabriella identified as the root cause of climate change and its consequences for indigenous peoples.
Harpreet Kaur Paul acquiesced on the problem of over-consumption as part of the greater capitalist and colonial system which underpins climate change. She represented the Wretched of the Earth Collective, which unites grassroots Indigenous, black, brown and diaspora groups acting in solidarity with oppressed communities in the Global South and Indigenous North. She gave a fascinating account of the People’s Climate March for Justice and Jobs which indigenous delegates were invited to join after the attacks in Paris meant they could not attend there. The front of the march was initially reserved for these delegates but at the last moment was given to a group dressed in animal headgear. As Harpreet Jaur Paul explained, this decision reflects how the global north conceives of climate change as impacting animals and plants in the short term and people in the long term. This self-centered perspective overlooks the fact that whilst climate change will only threaten the survival of the global north in the future, it is already threatening lives across the world in poorer countries. Denying indigenous delegates their rightful place at the front of the march was highlighted as a continuation of a history of colonial erasure of oppressed communities.
The last speaker, Chuks Okereke a professor at the University of the Reading and a visiting fellow at the Environmental Change Institute reiterated the need to frame climate change as an issue of justice rather than viewing it narrowly as a market problem or an issue to be resolved solely with technical solutions. In a clever play on the name of the event organisers, he stressed the need to consider the planet as “common ground” in order to combat climate change fairly. His interest in political philosophy was evident in his presentation of common ownership as the necessary alternative to a conception borrowed from Hobbes of the world as a resource which belongs to no-one and invites the strongest to claim possession of.
Unanimous in their agreement on the need to dismantle capitalist and colonialist systems to combat climate change, the three panelists discussed the question of how to bring this about as well as how to radically integrate the voices of the victims of these systems in climate action.
Chuks emphasised the need to challenge capitalist discourses on the level of intellectual argument. The three panelists opposed ‘sustainable development’ that does not do so as meaningless self-congratulation; climate change can’t be dealt with from within the existing capitalist system which must be confronted head on. As Harpreet Kaur Paul pointed out, economies are encouraged to grow 3% annually yet growth is incompatible with combating climate change. ‘Sustainable development’ only puts a plaster on an increasingly gaping wound. Dismantling an economic system that is so ubiquitous is of course easier said than done however. The need to enact change by re-calibrating our value system, by dissociating our notion of well-being from consumption and possession is frustratingly intangible. But politicians avoid radical change for fear it would be too unpopular for them to remain in power long enough to implement it.
Strike action is one tactic for change discussed during the event, with particular focus on extinction rebellion Whilst they praised the energy and momentum it is generating, they tempered their enthusiasm with a reminder of the need to consider the dimension of climate justice as well as the problems associated with the glorification of arrest as a political tactic given black and brown protesters have been disproportionately targeted by the police. On a more positive note, Harpreet Kaur Paul praised how organisers within extinction rebellion were very open to criticism and stressed the need to “promote each other’s spaces and tactics”.
For such a global and wide-reaching issue, a single tactic is perhaps not enough to enact the radical change required. She stressed the need for pluralism and the promotion of different theories of change and a diversity of approaches.