The Imperial Legacy Of Climate Change

Above Photo: The commitments made at COP were unserious and performative, constituting little more than corporate greenwashing. PA.

Western countries aren’t just huge polluters, they also built their economies through destructive colonial practices.

Any strategy to tackle climate change has to deal with that legacy.

The student movement is no stranger to protests and direct action. From marching against South African apartheid to fighting for justice for workers, students have a long history of daring to reimagine the world we want to live in and uncompromisingly working towards it. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that students and young people are once more at the forefront of a campaign—one fighting for climate justice and our very ability to exist.

For several decades we have been told that our individual actions alone can reverse the climate crisis. The truth is paper straws and bags for life cannot compensate for decades of missed COP targets, government inaction, and the wealthiest 1%—predominantly in the Global North—producing double the emissions of half our global population combined. We urgently need systemic change.

Two weeks ago, we took our demands to COP26. As host, the UK had the opportunity to turn the tide and commit to a real plan that curbs the worst effects of climate breakdown. The student movement joined the trade union movement, community organisations, and international bodies to demand our government commits to investing in climate justice and a Green New Deal.

NUS members locked arms with members of the Scottish TUC to steward the bloc led by Fridays For Future MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) in one of the historic demonstrations, the March for Climate Justice. In moments like these, the united will of the people—seen physically, but felt even more viscerally—was abundantly clear.

COP26 should have been a watershed moment where our world leaders stepped up to the challenge, uprooted the system, and actively chose to put people and planet before profit. Instead, the EU invested €13 billion in 30 gas projects, and the UK government pledged $1 billion to a gas project in Mozambique and continues to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Cambo Oil Field.

While many commentators attempt to sell us the dream that COP26 kept 1.5oC alive, warming projections from the Climate Action Tracker indicate that the current 2030 targets would take us to 2.4oC by the end of the century. The world’s most powerful were tinkering around the edges, engaging in empty rhetoric, and napping on the job.

But away from the conference room, on the streets and in our communities, people were coming together to demand system change. Students and young people from across the world were out on the streets of Glasgow demanding radical action.

Our movement organised rallies, led workshops, and proposed alternative solutions to the climate crisis: reimagining a world rooted in justice and liberation. These moments weaved a tapestry of politicisation, where we recognised our agency and our collective power to go beyond the frameworks reproducing inaction, because the challenges we face require transformation beyond what any government can deliver.

There is a growing consciousness that while climate change is a global crisis, it isn’t a globally created crisis. It is the culminative consequence of centuries of colonialism and of wars waged for the sake of imperial expansion that has resulted in mass deforestation, land degradation, and the plundering natural resources across the world. This crisis is the very product of greed, injustice, and exploitation: indeed, the product of racial capitalism. As such, there is no climate justice without racial justice.

The responsibility of the UK in the face of the climate crisis is not only down to emissions in the present; we must also consider the historical debt the UK owes the rest of the world. It was the British Empire that created and exported the exploitative and environmentally destructive model of industrial capitalism that has fuelled the crisis we now face. Based on our historic emissions, particularly driven by our rampant use of coal during the industrial revolution, the UK is more responsible for the climate emergency than any other nation on earth.

The wealth of the British Empire was rooted in the same exploitative models of economics that have created the climate crisis. This trend continues the world over: countries in the Global North are profiting the most and bear the biggest responsibility for the impact of the climate emergency, while countries in the Global South contribute the least but are disproportionately affected by climate breakdown.

The sticking point of this COP was, ultimately, climate finance. The Global North evaded loss and damage finance, and failed to meet Barbados PM Mia Motley’s call for the reallocation of $500 billion per year in Special Drawing Rights. The sum of this persistent financial inaction will be costly—costly for lives and for livelihoods.

Countries in the Global North need to atone for climate colonialism with funding that redresses historical responsibility for exploitative systems that caused climate breakdown. They can do this through a Green New Deal that facilitates a just global transition and allows countries to have autonomy over their climate recovery plans.

Universities, colleges, and other institutions also need to divest funds from corporations that profit from climate catastrophe. We must decarbonise our campuses and our communities, and institutions must step aside as people-powered movements drive forward decolonial efforts to abolish and reimagine the systems and structures that define our existence.

The commitments made at COP were surface-level, performative, and little more than corporate greenwashing. We need people-powered, anti-racist movements that reckon with the colonial roots of the climate emergency, and more broadly with racial capitalism.

But we cannot wait for COP27 when so many communities across the world were shut out of COP26 and its 25 predecessors. Climate breakdown is already happening, and the poorest in the Global South are losing their lives to it.

In the face of this existential threat, the student movement must rally like never before. We cannot win just by influencing spaces built to maintain unsustainable systems. We win through a grassroots climate justice movement that is collectively too loud to ignore.


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