The Problem of Carbon Colonialism

Carbon colonialism is the unequal distribution of the burdens and benefits associated with addressing climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy. A parallel to historical colonialism, where power imbalances and exploitation were prevalent, carbon colonialism suggests that developed countries, primarily responsible for historical greenhouse gas emissions, continue to exercise economic and political dominance over developing nations. These developing countries bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and resource scarcity.

At the same time, developed countries promote and implement climate mitigation measures, such as renewable energy projects and carbon offset mechanisms, in developing nations. This often occurs without sufficient local participation or consent, leading to negative social and environmental impacts. Additionally, the benefits of these projects, such as carbon credits or clean energy, are frequently siphoned off by external entities rather than supporting local communities.

Furthermore, carbon colonialism can also be observed in the continuing exploitation of natural resources in developing countries to meet the demands of developed nations. This includes extraction industries like mining and logging, which contribute to carbon emissions while depriving local communities of their lands and resources.

The Case for Carbon Reparations

A recently published paper by Andrew L. Fanning & Jason Hickel take carbon colonialism to task.

Carbon reparations is the about compensating countries or communities that have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and historical carbon emissions (Shell in Nigeria). Simply put, its the idea that countries or corporations that have contributed the most to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have a moral and ethical obligation to provide financial and other forms of support to those who have been most adversely affected.

Fanning and Hickel developed a procedure to quantify the level of compensation owed in a ‘net zero’ scenario where all countries decarbonize by 2050, using carbon prices from IPCC scenarios that limit global warming to 1.5 °C and tracking cumulative emissions from 1960 across 168 countries.

What they found was that even in this “ambitious” scenario, the global North would overshoot its collective equality-based share of the 1.5 °C carbon budget by a factor of three, appropriating half of the global South’s share in the process.

The result?

They calculate that compensation of US$192 trillion would be owed to the undershooting countries of the global South for the appropriation of their atmospheric fair shares by 2050, with an average disbursement to those countries of US$940 per capita per year!

So what happens next?

The Future

There are three paths we see going forward for the future:

Climate Litigation

Lawsuits against the responsible institutions (corporations, governments). This article from just two days ago says: Next week the first constitutional climate lawsuit goes to trial amid signs fossil fuel companies are facing accountability tests

And climate litigation is set to boom:

  • Globally, the cumulative number of climate change-related cases has more than doubled since 2015, bringing the total number of cases to over 2,000. Around one-quarter of these were filed between 2020 and 2022.
  • Climate litigation has become an instrument used to enforce or enhance climate commitments made by governments, with 73 ‘framework’ cases challenging governments’ overall responses to climate change.
  • Over the last 12 months, further legal cases have been brought against fossil fuel companies, especially outside the United States. Cases against corporate actors are also increasingly targeting the food and agriculture, transport, plastics and finance sectors.
  • The number of climate litigation cases with strategic ambition (i.e. to bring about a broader societal shift) continues to rise.
  • Recent litigation has commonalities with some of the most important issues highlighted by the international community at COP26, including the need to increase ambition and action from countries, and phase down the use of all fossil fuels across the energy sector.
  • Five areas to watch: cases involving personal responsibility; cases challenging commitments that over-rely on greenhouse gas removals or ‘negative emissions’ technologies; cases focused on short-lived climate pollutants; cases explicitly concerned with the climate and biodiversity nexus; and strategies exploring legal recourse for the ‘loss and damage’ resulting from climate change.
Climate Protest

As the climate crisis becomes more obvious to everyone, the young are doing something about it. Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are not mere PR games. They are the Davids taking on the Goliaths of the Status Quo.

We are beginning to see a movement of movements.

And what’s more – protest movements are more effective than the best charities!

You read that right. James Ozden writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: To do as much good as possible with limited resources, funders should look to woefully underfunded protest movements.

Here’s the Social Change Lab‘s theory of protest-driven change:

The Social Change Lab research finds that effective social movements may well be more effective than the best charities at moving the needle.

In our book, REGENERATION: The Future of Community in a Permacrisis World, we argue that there is no deus ex machina. Movements are the going to be the way to real change.

Others agree. The Ayni Institute believes that mass protest mobilizations play a critical role in creating the necessary conditions for cultural and political change. When grantmakers and major donors fail to appreciate how they work, they are missing a huge opportunity.

Climate Violence

Meanwhile, our politicians are busy (in the UK, US, France, Italy) finding ways to make protests illegal.

Corporate entities are attacking protest organizations under “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPPs) – an attempt to silence peaceful dissent by using litigation as a tool for deterring peaceful protest. 

Worse, studies show that as the impacts of warming are experienced more directly and substantially, we may vote for precisely the wrong people.

This diagram depicts how the climate crisis brings forth the conditions for strong men leaders and hyper nationalism:

Strong men are the wrong men – if we want a future.

And the reparations argument is not taken seriously by the Global North. Does anyone believe that the US and UK would voluntarily send trillions to the Global South for climate reparations? Heck, they won’t even apologize for slavery.

And let’s add to that our collective misperception of economic inequality:

What will take to get us out of our doom spiral?

Regenerative leadership.

Stay tuned.