As the world gears up for the upcoming 28th United Nations Conference of Parties on climate change (COP28), the appointment of a fossil fuel executive as its head has sparked widespread criticism. Host countries of COP conferences appoint the president, and COP28 host United Arab Emirates appointed its state oil company head to the presidency.
Given the fossil fuel industry’s role in worsening climate change and delaying, denying and diverting meaningful climate action, the appointment of a fossil fuel executive to a prominent position raises concerns of impartiality and fairness while one climate disaster after another plays out across the globe. Meanwhile, the United States recently refused to pay climate reparations to poor nations, abdicating global attempts to hold the largest polluters accountable for costs of climate-related loss and damage.
These controversial decisions expose the systemic inequities and problems embedded in the current model of climate governance. It is a stark reminder of the urgent need to overhaul our approach completely.
The climate crisis is a human-made catastrophe resulting from centuries of exploitation and disregard for the environment, driven by the relentless pursuit of capitalist profit and power. That makes it a crisis of governance and prioritization of how problems are presented, solutions are pursued and interventions are funded.
Climate change is also not a universal burden. Its impacts are unevenly distributed, with the most vulnerable communities bearing the brunt of its devastating effects. Meanwhile, the power to determine climate change responses and solutions has been concentrated in the hands of wealthy nations and corporations.
This is the essence of what is called climate coloniality. It refers to the various ways legacies of colonialism haunt the climate emergency — how colonial and imperial era’s exploitative and discriminatory ideologies and institutions not only shape who is disproportionately impacted by climate change globally but also who has the power to determine policies, solutions and financing. Even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently acknowledged the role of colonialism in climate change.
Current climate governance and decision-making approaches are rooted in the same colonial mindsets that led us to this very crisis. They continue (and worsen) the same power dynamics, inequities and injustices. They are not just inadequate — they are part of the problem.
For instance, many climate policies and solutions, such as carbon trading, offsetting or net zero, are based on the economic principles that have fueled climate change and socioeconomic inequalities in the first place — without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, these solutions fail to address the root causes of the climate crisis and inadequately tackle structural factors for rising greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, many exacerbate social and economic inequalities on the ground for marginalized communities. Some have even led to violence and displacement of Indigenous groups.
Ethical concerns have also been raised regarding controversial technological climate solutions that are being pursued to engineer our way out of this crisis. Technological bandages do not solve broader systemic problems, particularly for countries across the Global South.
Decolonizing climate governance requires a radical shift in our approach to the climate emergency. It requires us to confront the colonial and capitalist legacies that enduringly shape our world. It necessitates challenging the power dynamics that perpetuate climate coloniality. It demands centering the voices, experiences and knowledge systems of diverse Black, Indigenous and people of color in climate solutions, while also learning from communities in the Global South.
Decolonization is not just about dismantling the structures of colonialism. It is also about healing from its wounds. It’s about acknowledging the violence and material outcomes of colonialism and capitalism and then creating pathways for decolonization toward climate justice.
This includes promoting multiple voices to shape global climate policies, supporting and learning from different framings of problems and solutions to climate-worsened disasters, valuing and elevating place-based knowledge and equitable partnerships, and integrating various Indigenous and local knowledge that was historically disregarded by Eurocentric biases and ignorance. Such efforts help to decolonize climate governance and action at multiple levels — from the local to the global — and shift the control over institutions, policies and interventions around climate change.
As we approach COP28, there is an opportunity to create a more significant groundswell to mobilize toward a decolonized climate governance grounded in justice, equity, solidarity, accountability, respect and the lived experiences of the most marginalized globally. There are numerous ways to do this.
Climate advocates and leaders from the Global South can use COP and surrounding events to network, organize and strategize at both local levels, where many climate policies play out, and globally. This could focus on demanding better representation in leadership positions, like the COP presidencies, of individuals who support climate justice instead of corporate interests. Another tactic is to support nonviolent direct action to divest from fossil fuel industries and hold them accountable. The voices, concerns and strategies of Global South and Indigenous climate leaders should also be heard more widely, so pushing media and the news to cover them is another crucial step. Lastly, civic organizations, activists and policy makers in the U.S. can get involved by building stronger transnational alliances to learn from and work with partners in the Global South.
Climate coloniality weighs heavily on us all, but we can lift this burden and pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable world through collective action, solidarity and a commitment to justice. Let’s ensure that the legacy of climate coloniality is not our future but a historical lesson that guides us toward a better tomorrow.
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