EAN/FAN Workshop 2023: Climate Colonialism and Green Transitions

Ruy Llera Blanes, Center for Research in Anthropology (CRIA), ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon

Email: ruy.blanes@iscte-iul.pt

Aerial photo of a lake in the Zambezi River, created by the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam project, developed in colonial Mozambique. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Introduction: what are we talking about when we talk about climate colonialism

The concept of climate colonialism has recently taken prominence in environmental debates, in particular after the recent recognition, in the 2022 report of the IPCC, of colonialism as a historical cause for our present-day climate crisis (IPCC 2022). The formulation of the causality of the relation is in itself interesting, as in fact one could question to what extent the ‘colonialism’ of the report is a specific historical process or rather a more overarching formulation of the political economy of domination and extraction. In any case, while on the one hand it can be argued that climate colonialism is a term that remains somewhat ‘unsettled’, in the sense of referring to diverse empirical processes and epistemological routes, it is also a rich and productive entry point into current processes of social, economic and political inequalities stemming from our multifarious engagements with/in the environment.

On the one hand, working from the IPCC reference, climate colonialism may refer to the long term environmental and climatic impacts of centuries of colonial politics – mainly, though not necessarily exclusively, associated to the Euro-American imperialisms that marked the last six centuries. In this framework, there is a well-known history of political imperialism that was concomitantly one of violent resource extraction and subsequently of unfolding into a process of globalized industrialization. From this perspective, there is an overlap between the history of colonialism and the emergence of a capitalocene – in terms of relating the environmental impact with corporate and statal forms that developed through colonial practices of occupation, settlement and exploitation (Moore 2017, 2018) – and for instance one of its expressions: the plantationocene (Davis et al. 2019; Wolford 2021) – in terms of exploring the role of plantations in the structuring of (unequal) social, economic and political relationships across the globe.

On the other hand, climate colonialism can be understood more broadly as either a continuation of the colonial mindset or logic in broader postcolonial global politics, which replicate or further imperialize, unequal power relationships between peoples, nations and institutions – what Jason Hickel and others described as the ‘plunder in the postcolonial era’ (Hickel et al. 2021). Here, multiple examples could be given: from the perpetuation of settler/displacement politics (Cowen 2020; Sant et al. 2021) and racial discrimination (Cole and Foster 2001; Preston 2017; Moreno Parra 2019) to the acknowledgement of global pollution as a colonial form (Liboiron 2021). From this perspective, climate colonialism invokes multiple divides, from the older West/Rest and First/Third World logics to the contemporary Under/Development and Global North/South angles.

But climate colonialism can also be understood more specifically as the replication of colonial logics within the current Green Transition paradigm. Here, many authors have discussed how the global triumph of ‘green agendas’ has enabled a global market of carbon offsetting that is ultimately colonial (Parsons 2023) in terms of what has been described as environmental load displacement (Hornborg 2009) across unequal political and economic relationships. As recently highlighted in the discussions on climate finance and compensations for loss and damage in environmentally vulnerable countries, held at the COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt (2022), the global agenda of green transition is built upon ongoing processes of ‘traffic’ in climate adaptation performance.

Finally, another dimension of climate colonialism worth exploring is what Farhana Sultana (2023) has called “coloniality of climate”, i.e. the necessity of addressing the epistemic violences that inform the political, economic and topographical formations highlighted above. From this perspective, the current political circulation of Green Transition narratives is riddled with unequal distributions of voices and perspectives, namely from individuals and communities located in the critical geographies of the Transition.  

A discussion within and beyond climate colonialism

The paper presentations and discussions in the Climate Colonialism panel of the EAN/FAN workshop 2023, revised and worked for this publication, made multiple and diverse critical interventions on the concept. To what extent does a conceptualization of climate colonialism highlight or obscure processes of environmental injustice? What are the potentialities and limitations brought forth by the concept? Our insights stem from empirical and critical research undertaken in North and South America. While the contributions by Emiliano Castillo Jara and Mariia Iakovleva and Jeremy Rayner focused on the case of Canada, Susana Carmona offered a discussion from Colombia, and Julia Schwab’s discussion stemmed from the Ecuadorian Amazon.[1]

One important point of discussion was the undertaking of the geography of climate colonialism, beyond the more mainstream approach that tends to highlight a North-South logic. From this perspective, we argue that not only the North has its own Souths (and vice-versa), but that relationships of power operate through diverse geographies, topographic formations, movements and directionalities. Here, we focused on the complex role of actors and players, both in terms of corporate and state initiatives, and of local community mobilizations, in the wider framework of global climate adaptation and energy transitions.

For instance, Emiliano Castillo Jara’s text shows us one way in which contemporary state environmental policies operate in a logic of historical continuity with climate colonialism: the ‘emptying’ of Indigenous lands and territory towards its extraction and exploitation, in order to legitimize fossil fuel expansion. This is the case of Canada’s climate and energy strategies, which rely on the invisibilization of local livelihoods and epistemologies towards the imposition of overarching transition policies. Specifically, it demonstrates how a net-zero policy that responds to the global demands of greening and sustainability can also have violent repercussions, inasmuch as it reproduces injustices associated with the fossil fuel industrial model/paradigm. In fact, it exposes how a Green Transition plays along pre-existing colonial divides, rather than significantly altering or combatting them.

Mariia Iakovleva and Jeremy Rayner’s contribution also focuses on Canada, exploring the epistemological dimensions of clean energy processes, and highlighting the narrative and discursive dispositions through which ‘consensus’ is constructed. Specifically in the case of implantation of clean energy projects in Indigenous territories in Canada, we realize that the transition narrative enables (or rather, imposes) either/or logics of trade-off and compensation, benefit and loss, development or abandonment, etc.

Another point of discussion was the temporality of projects – extractive or otherwise. If the colonial capitalocene, plantationocene and other -cenes were fueled by overarching civilizational and developmentalist ideologies, the critical post-colonial moment is riddled with teleologized futures that shape present social and political formations – from the dystopia of climate crisis to the envisioning of possible alternatives – and embody diverse dimensions of teleology through project-making, planning production, strategy development and program implementation. As Julia Schwab’s text demonstrates, the planning for the future uncovers colonial continuities impeding the possibility of realizing Indigenous self-determination. During her fieldwork with Indigenous Kichwa communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, her interlocutors changed their opinion on “oil futures”: while they first rejected oil extraction in their territories, they started to embrace it later on as an opportunity to escape socio-economic hardship. Julia highlights the importance of taking materiality serious in planning discourses and points to the velocity of solutions perceived as “fast” (oil/other forms of extractivism) vs. “slow” (conservation efforts/alternative projects funded by external actors) by Indigenous communities.

The question of the possibility of future transitions is also raised in Susana Carmona’s contribution, which focuses on the extractive industries in La Guajira, Colombia and the challenges faced by those attempting to imaging a post-extractivist future. In her case, she addresses the question whether an emergent logic of ‘post-extractivism’ is possible in the framework of current energy transition paradigms – namely, the expected abandonment of coal extraction in favor of wind power developments. Susana focuses on the idea that the coal is producing legacies through practices of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), which form ‘neoliberal subjects’ among Indigenous communities and therefore reproduce an extractivist logic.

From this particular perspective, all contributions highlight a dimension of colonialism within the global ecological/economic landscape. In the face of capitalizing developmentalist possibilities of clean futures, what happens with local and often Indigenous agencies and epistemologies?

In sum, both the individual contributions and the collective debate offer the possibility of a critical conceptual discussion, but also a more overarching reflection on what the place and role of academic knowledge and practice can take in the contemporary process. Is an analytical undertaking sufficient?

Bibliographical references

Cole, Luke W., and Sheila R. Foster. 2001. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. NYU Press.

Cowen, Deborah. 2020. “Following the Infrastructures of Empire: Notes on Cities, Settler Colonialism, and Method.” Urban Geography 41 (4): 469–86. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2019.1677990.

Davis, Janae, Alex A. Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams. 2019. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, … Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises.” Geography Compass 13 (5): e12438. https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12438.

Hickel, Jason, Dylan Sullivan, and Huzaifa Zoomkawala. 2021. “Plunder in the Post-Colonial Era: Quantifying Drain from the Global South Through Unequal Exchange, 1960–2018.” New Political Economy 26 (6): 1030–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2021.1899153.

Hornborg, Alf. 2009. “Zero-Sum World: Challenges in Conceptualizing Environmental Load Displacement and Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50 (3–4): 237–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020715209105141.

IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, 3056 pp., doi:10.1017/9781009325844.

Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Moore, Jason W. 2017. “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 44 (3): 594–630. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1235036.

———. 2018. “The Capitalocene Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45 (2): 237–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1272587.

Moreno Parra, María. 2019. “Environmental Racism: Slow Death and the Displacement of Ancestral Afro-Ecuadorian Territory in Esmeraldas.” Íconos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, no. 64: 89–109. https://doi.org/10.17141/iconos.64.2019.3686.

Parsons, Laurie. 2023. Carbon Colonialism. How Rich Countries Export Climate Breakdown. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526169181.

Preston, Jen. 2017. “Racial Extractivism and White Settler Colonialism: An Examination of the Canadian Tar Sands Mega-Projects.” Cultural Studies 31 (2–3): 353–75. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2017.1303432.

Sultana, Farhana. 2022. “The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Coloniality.” Political Geography, 102638. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2022.102638.

Wolford, Wendy. 2021. “The Plantationocene: A Lusotropical Contribution to the Theory.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 111 (6): 1622–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2020.1850231.


[1] Two other colleagues participated in the panel with contributions on mineral prospection practices across the USA and Canada (Merle Davis) and on the unfolding of the renewable energy industry in Colombia (Steven Schwartz). Unfortunately, they were unable to contribute to this written report.

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