Neglecting colonialism is exacerbating the climate crisis

Policy-makers need to focus on climate justice argue Jan Wilkens and Alvine Datchoua-Tirvaudey

Group of demonstrators with a banner that reads “Respect for Indigenous People” during a demonstration in front of the Peruvian Judiciary Palace, as part of the Global Climate Strike. Photo taken on the 24th of September 2021 by Carlos Garcia Granthon/Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

As international attempts to limit the damage done by climate change continue in the aftermath of COP26, an issue ostensibly given increasing mainstream attention is climate justice. In this blogpost, we argue that climate policy-makers have failed to sufficiently engage with questions of climate justice and that they will continue not to do so until they take calls to decolonize climate research and policy seriously. Current policy-making further marginalizes those living with the most acute impacts of climate change and in so doing constrains the ability of policy-makers to both understand the crisis and develop genuine long-term solutions to it.

Appropriating climate justice

Considering the profound and wide-ranging effects of climate change, dominant actors in global politics somewhat belatedly joined the call to ‘act now’ in celebratory speeches and bold letters on the COP26 conference walls in Glasgow. Indeed, leaders increasingly appropriate the language of ‘climate justice’ by referring to ‘fair solutions’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘climate justice’ was emphasized in the Preamble of the COP26 cover decision Glasgow Climate Pact. To the casual observer, it would appear that considerations of climate justice are playing an increasing prominent role in climate governance.

Unfortunately, these appeals to climate justice are remarkable for just how removed they are from the idea of climate justice fought for by organizations and activists at the grassroots level. This inherently consists of racial justice, gender justice, knowledge recognition, self-determination, reparation, respect of Indigenous Peoples Rights and human rights as well as the fair distribution of and access to resources. The terms ‘climate justice’ and ‘environmental justice’ are increasingly being emptied of the meaning and power given to these terms by Black activist movements in the US since the 1970s and by Indigenous People across the world in a variety of actions, organisations and movements for centuries. While policy-makers have become adept at espousing the language of climate justice, they have done so by abandoning its meaning and appropriating it for their own ends.

No justice without decolonization

If existing climate regimes really aim to implement just measures, such as fairly distributing at least the financial burdens of climate change, scholars and policy-makers need to account for the colonial roots of the climate crisis. This means recognizing that climate change started with the violent exploitation of people’s bodies, skills, intellect, land, oceans, resources and tools during colonization that enabled industrialization. Although the Industrial Revolution is used as a reference point in most decision-making and science communication through benchmarking ‘pre-industrial levels’ of global greenhouse gas emissions, the contribution of colonization to industrialization and thus rapid climate change is still rarely mentioned. This is concerning as colonialism’s legacies continue to influence ways of thinking which help maintain inequities and perpetuate justice gaps. Notably, in the most recent report of the Working Group II (WGII) contributing to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the IPCC, colonialism is discussed, for the first time, not only as a historical cause of the climate crisis, but also as an obstacle to effective measures against climate change and its consequences.

Yet the (non-)responses of dominant actors to the climate crisis impose a rigidly neo-liberal approach as to how to solve it and constrain the potential for meaningful shifts in policy. Following COP26 it is increasingly obvious that decarbonization alone is insufficient to provide a just path to a sustainable future nor does it decolonize the power relations have contributed to the current crisis. Indeed, decolonization is essential to tackling climate change both because of its commitment to reorganize how we understand environmental change and the challenge it presents to the structures of power responsible for the current crisis.

In the context of COP26, power relations informed dominant discourses on how to tackle climate change by entrenching capitalism and limiting the political space available for interaction. For example, a focus on national and corporate delegations created hurdles for people living through the extreme impacts of climate change to share their perspectives in key negotiations.

At the same time, the long-lasting mobilization of Indigenous People’s organisations, NGOs and youth organisations enabled the creation of empowering spaces, the extension of existing policy networks, and in some instances participation in state delegations. Encouraging successes in this regard can be seen in the Finnish delegation, which included the President and the Secretary of International Affairs of the Sámi Parliament, as well as in the wider participation of Sámi activists and legislators who played an important role in raising concerns about green colonialism.

Ultimately, only substantial moves towards decolonizing the design, structures, practices, behaviours and policies of global climate governance can provide the impetus for decarbonization and a ‘real zero’ emissions goal (as opposed to the much re-interpreted ‘net-zero’). Indeed, this endeavour provides the necessary conditions for creating a genuinely just response to climate change by centring the perspectives of those already living with its impacts.


Discussing justice in global climate governance arenas might seem hypocritical in view of rising CO2 emissions, a lack of action on fossil fuel divestment and the implausibility of reaching climate targets by 2050. However, a profoundly limited and unequal status quo makes it all the more necessary to interrogate the underlying power dynamics that allow the current crisis to persist.

IR scholars and policy-makers need to reflect more critically on how our understanding of climate change and its solutions is influenced by colonial thinking. We argue that diverse ways of knowing need to shape our understanding of the climate crisis and just ways to address it. Failure to do so will both perpetuate the exclusion of those most affected by the current crisis and drastically limit our own understanding of how climate change is impacting the world. People living at the frontline of climate change have called for less hollow appeals to justice from powerful actors in the international system and more substantive commitments to tackling colonial power asymmetries in climate policy. This also means thinking more substantially about ways in which diverse ways of knowing are also part of effective strategies to tackle climate change. Only by doing this can policymakers begin to live up to potential of what climate justice truly represents.

Jan Wilkens is a PostDoc in the Synthesis Team at the Center for Earth Sciences Research and Sustainability (CEN) in the Cluster of Excellence ‘Climate, Climatic Change and Society’ (CLICCS) at the University of Hamburg.

Alvine R. C. Darchoua-Tirvaudey is a Research Associate at the Center for Earth Sciences Research and Sustainability (CEN) in the Cluster of Excellence ‘Climate, Climatic Change and Society’ (CLICCS) at the University of Hamburg.

Their article ‘Researching climate justice: a decolonial approach to global climate governance’ was published in the January 2022 special issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.



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