A summary of Asad Rehman's, (Director of charity War on Want) talk on 'Race, Empire and Climate Change' which explains how climate change perpetuates the injustices f colonialism.
By Mathilda Alexander
Coinciding with the start of COP25 and in time for the impending general election, Asad Rehman’s talk on Monday 2nd December 2019 shed light on how global inequality caused by colonialism is being amplified by climate change, and how the UK needs to act in accordance.
Rehman began by outlining the aims and work of War on Want, the radical anti-poverty human rights climate justice organisation for which he is executive director. Unlike other charities, War on Want was one of the first who dared say no to Neoliberalism, and refuses to make political compromises that tacitly accept the capitalist system responsible for global inequality. War on Want has been committed to supporting movements in the global South since its inception and aims to provide justice, not charity, by identifying and tackling the root causes of inequality.
Climate change is at the heart of any consideration of global injustice, as a cause and consequence of colonialism. The urgent need to change the story we tell about climate was threaded throughout Rehman’s talk-current narratives fail to acknowledge the urgency of the crisis for the world’s most vulnerable. The endurance of the polar pear perched on an ice berg as the rallying image for climate action is painfully revealing of our blindness to the human costs of climate change on the global south as we speak.
In the words of Asad Rehman, “stop using the fucking polar bear and move on!”.
We may feel shocked by so violent a reaction to the cute and fluffy polar bear image, but far more shocking is the neo-colonial mentality behind the halfhearted commitments to climate action attitudes by the global north. Current pledges from the Paris Climate Agreement are leading us towards warming between 3-4 degrees. Whilst this will be problematic for the global north, it will be catastrophic for the world’s poorest. Just one degree of warming is already causing heatwaves that killed 1200 people in Pakistan and led to India’s fifth largest city, Chennai, with a population of 8.7 million people, running out of water.
It’s easy to argue for political compromise when it’s not your life being compromised on the front lines of the crisis. For Rehman, climate inequality can only be explained in the context of colonialism, the doctrine of discovery and enlightenment thinking which sanctioned the sacrifice of human life in the pursuit of profit. The global North has been built and financed by the historic exploitation of the global South’s resources and people, with Britain estimated to have stolen $45 Trillion from India, making the global South dependent on the global North. If we don’t acknowledge our own debt, we risk a climate apartheid, where the wealthy pay to escape, and the rest of the world suffer.
So, what should we do? Rehman argued we must start telling a story of solidarity that unites people in empathy with the global south and combats the elitism of the environmental movement. The working class are right to shun a movement that emphasises individual consumer responsibility; we should instead work towards a profound transformation that challenges neoliberalism.
This means leaving behind the assumption that we can continue to prioritise profit by simply “greening” our economy. Transitioning to renewable energy at current rates of consumption requires the extraction of resources which exploits the global south. Huge mining projects all over Latin America are already causing huge environmental, exacerbating water shortages in Chile. To sacrifice the most vulnerable in order to remain politically and economically dominant would be to continue the legacy of colonialism which are so quick to denounce vocally.
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