Leading scientists recognize the link between colonialism and climate change

The sixth and final report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impact of global warming on our planet, published earlier this month, reiterates many of the warnings of its predecessors: mainly that climate change climate threatens to cause global catastrophe if we do not act to prevent it. However, it contains an essential difference. For the first time in the institution’s history, the IPCC has included the term “colonialism” in the summary of its report.

Activists have long argued for acknowledging colonialism as a climate-shaping force. Edward Kimmel/Wikimedia

Colonialism, the report argues, has exacerbated the effects of climate change. In particular, historical and current forms of colonialism have contributed to increasing the vulnerability of specific people and places to the effects of climate change.

The IPCC has been producing scientific reports on climate change since 1990. But in more than 30 years of analysis, it has never discussed the links between climate change and colonialism: until now.

Adding a new term to the IPCC lexicon may not seem significant. But colonialism is a deeply complex word. Referring to the practice of gaining full or partial control over the territory of another group, it can include the occupation of that land by settlers as well as the economic exploitation of the land for the benefit of the colonizing group.

In Australia, where I come from, British settlers invaded Aboriginal lands in the late 18th century and have since worked to establish a permanent settlement there. It was not a peaceful process. It involved violent acts of dispossession, including widespread massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the forced eviction of these people from their lands, and the forced separation of children from their families.

Linking climate change to such acts of colonization involves recognizing that historical injustices are not relegated to history: their legacies are alive in the present. Researchers have shown, for example, that the scale of bushfires in Australia today – including the catastrophic fires of 2019-2020 – is not exacerbated by climate change alone. It is also amplified by the colonial displacement of Indigenous peoples from their lands and the disruption of their land management practices that skillfully used controlled burning to help landscapes flourish.

The spread of bushfires in Australia has been influenced by preventing indigenous peoples from managing their lands. Bertknot/Flickr, CC BY-SA

This is why it is significant that the term colonialism is not only included in the full and more technical part of the last report. It is also included in the concise ‘Summary for Policymakers’, the most quoted and widely read part of the IPCC reports.

By linking climate change to colonialism in this summary, the IPCC sends a message to governments and policy makers around the world that it is impossible to address the effects of climate change without also addressing the legacies of colonialism. It is a message that also acknowledges how the climate justice movement has long campaigned for recognition of the unequal effects of climate change on different groups of people.

Timely Connections

Several reasons stand out as to why the IPCC ultimately chose to recognize this link. Those most affected by colonization campaigned for – and gained greater access to – the IPCC reporting process. Previous reports have been criticized for the lack of authors from Indigenous groups and non-Western nations.

In the latest report, on the other hand, about 44% of the authors are from “developing countries and countries with economies in transition”, compared to 37% in the previous report. The authors also come from more diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including anthropology, history and philosophy as well as science and economics.

Previous IPCC working groups have been criticized for their lack of diversity. John Englart/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Since the IPCC completed its fifth report in 2014, more and more literature demonstrates the links between climate change and colonialism. For example, Potawatomi philosopher and climate justice scholar Kyle Whyte is cited in the latest report for his research on the links between the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and environmental damage.

Yet for all the significance of the IPCC’s new recognition, it is only part of the latest report that expands on this link. The IPCC reports are composed of three sections produced by different working groups. The first section assesses the physical science of climate change; the second covers the impacts of climate change; and the third discusses potential ways to mitigate these effects. Only the second section deals with colonialism.

Climate history

As a historian of climate science, I would say that an analysis of colonialism should also be included in the first section on climate science.

Research increasingly shows that climate science is rooted in imperialism and colonialism. Historian Deborah R. Coen has shown that key elements of contemporary climate change science owe their origins to the imperial ambitions of the Habsburg Empire in the 19th century. It was the imperialist policy of the Habsburgs, for example, that helped scientists develop an understanding of the relationship between local storm development and atmospheric circulation.

Moreover, much of the historical weather data on which contemporary climatologists rely was produced by colonizing powers. Take the data extracted by scientists from the logbooks of mid-19th century English ships. This information was recorded as part of an effort to better connect territories settled by the British Empire and to expedite the exploitation of other people’s lands and waters.

It remains to be seen how the IPCC will deal with these kinds of links between climate change and colonialism, but hopefully it will soon recognize colonialism in its three working groups. What is already clear is that the links between climate change and colonialism are legion and involve coming to terms with an uncomfortable range of legacies.

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Teresa H. Sadler