Postcolonial Climate Critique
Countries around the world are pledging in agreements to reduce emissions and meet sets of restrictions which help fight climate change. Hooray! This sounds great! Until you read that only two nations have met their pledges. Revealing the largest polluters and who suffers the most dearly makes these pledges appear more as pleasantries than real solutions. The dialogue on climate change has largely been concerned with issues of how to realistically scale back carbon emissions while still upholding societal norms and energy demands. While the important postcolonial perspective is spoken of in dialogues, it remains exactly that: A perspective. The International Panel on Climate Change may recognize the connection between climate change and colonialism, but makes no action statement to address the disparity. Taking accountability of climate inequality is absolutely paramount to fighting climate change. When fighting something this devastating, misunderstanding and ignorance will be the setback that could very well set us back and send us over the tipping point.
Here is a list of the eight nations that are at the highest risk of extreme environmental events that result from climate change: Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, the Philippines, Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is not hard to notice that every country on this list was subject to colonization. It is also no surprise that the colonizers: the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Portugal are all at much lower risk (102, 32, 27, and 37 respectively3). This is exactly why the postcolonial approach to climate change needs to be further recognized and included in plans to action. Climate change follows the same paths left by colonialism. How the turmoil of colonialism (and neocolonialism) affects the severity of climate change is best shown through a case study.
Take the nation of Haiti. With a current population of 10.2 million, the island nation holds a GDP per capita of 1,814.7 USD. More than half of the population live below the poverty line, and constant extreme weather events severely damage the agriculturally based economy. Haiti’s history under colonialism and subsequent neocolonialism increased the damages of climate change through ecological, economic, and political means.
During colonization under the Spanish, the majority of forests were cleared to make way for profit-driven farms. Now, Haiti has a mere 1% of its its original forests. This has led to a recent extinction in biodiversity and irreparable damage to the ecosystem, which is further worsened by the prediction that Haiti will lose all of its original forests within a few years4. Forests are also vital in preventing droughts and flooding (both of which Haiti suffers from now), which makes the destruction of them an ecological nightmare.
Economically, Haiti was broken down and controlled from the start. In exchange for its independence in 1805, France demanded the equivalent of 22 billion USD, which Haiti devoted the majority of its income to paying for over a century. Not to be outdone, the United States under Woodrow Wilson invaded and began an often forgotten occupation of Haiti in 1915. Racial segregation and iron-fist rulership was imposed for over twenty years, which only succeeded in imposing dependency on the United States, killing thousands of Haitians, and taking complete control of the Haitian National Bank. The US instilled dependency within the Haitian economy and this is evident today. In 2020, Haiti held a trade deficit of 2.25 billion USD, with the primary exporter being the US. Economically, Haiti has struggled against the colonizers and neocolonizers ever since gaining independence. These economic issues are damaging to the landscape as well, as it forces the citizens to survive off of subsistence farming. This further pushes the need for agricultural land, which has now reached the point where the majority (66.4%) of Haiti’s land is used for agriculture.
Politically, Haiti has been subject to heavy intervention as well, with the US forcing favorable outcomes for chosen candidates. The effect this has on extreme weather response is drastic. The political instability brought through intervention and the turmoil Haiti was put in through the early to late 20th century completely ruined its preparedness and crisis response, as it left the country without strong dependable leadership.
These climate related crises in Haiti only seem to be getting more frequent as well. Natural disasters are striking only days apart from one another. Floods and storm surges are affecting more and more people. Drought is plaguing the north in the summer months, heightening the risk of famine12. Everything is spinning out of control around the island, and it is all due to the long history of colonization and neocolonization. This is nothing unique to Haiti either. Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948 with one hundred and twenty four years of history as an exploited colony behind it. The British not only exploited the labor and land, but cleared swaths of ecologically-vital mangrove forests for rice farming. Myanmar now faces rising temperatures, droughts, typhoons, and rising sea levels. While other nations face their own difficulties with climate change, it is the previously exploited nations that suffer the most from the actions of polluters.
And just who are those polluters? It should come as no surprise that in 2020 the United States and the EU were the largest producers (42.74% combined) of the world’s global CO2 emissions. The eight nations listed at the highest risk of climate change emitted less than one percent of the world’s CO214. This is not just due to population size differences. France emits about 573 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. In Haiti that number sits at 6.68 tonnes14. Colonizers that exploited nations for their resources, leaving the landscape devastated and the economy in shambles are now the countries that emit the most C02 and have a much lower risk of the consequences.
The former prime minister of Haiti, Joseph Jouthe recognized this disparity, stating: “Haiti is not responsible for what’s going on with climate change but we are suffering from it. We want better treatment from the international community”. The international community however, did not take accountability. Much of the dialogue preceding the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was dominated by debates between the global North and South concerning how to properly determine climate responsibility. Countries from the global North (the US, UK, and Australia) refused to take accountability, and instead created a controversial proposal in collaboration with Mexico which sought to ‘freeze’ developing nations emissions. This proposal would greatly limit growth in emerging economies and place higher climate responsibility on nations belonging to the global South. Brazil responded with a proposal that determined climate responsibility based on historical trends of pollution, but this was quickly shut down16. From a postcolonial perspective, the talks on climate change are dominated by the ex-colonizers in the global North. It is these colonizers that sought to include the former colonies with them as a communal group to fight it out altogether during the debates. However, these former colonies emit less, don’t have the same history of industrialization, and are at higher risk than the colonizers, so why should they bear the same responsibilities? Luckily, the Paris Agreement did not lump each nation together and stated that “emission reductions are undertaken on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, which are critical development priorities for many developing countries”. Nevertheless, the mission statement still does not incorporate accountability or even recognition of postcolonial perspective.
Colonialism is not ancient history. Its effects are prevalent throughout the world, whether they are recognized or not. It affects climate change to an extreme degree. The nations most affected by climate change were all subject to colonization which for some, lasted well into the 20th century. Haiti demonstrates that the effects of colonialism are multifaceted, and is behind everything from deforestation to political upheaval. The effects are deserving of a much more in depth look and further incorporation into the current dialogue. Currently, the postcolonial perspective has remained an empty talking point on addressing the inequality of climate change. An effective approach to climate change must utilize the postcolonialist perspective not as an empty promise, but as a basis for action.
PBS NewsHour, “Only 2 Countries Are Meeting Their Climate Pledges. Here’s How the 10 Worst Could Improve,” PBS NewsHour, September 26, 2019,
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2022), https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGII_SummaryForPolicymakers.pdf.
David Eckstein, Vera Künzel, and Laura Schäfer, “Global Climate Risk Index 2021,” Global Climate Risk Index 2021 – World I Relief Web (Germany: Germanwatch e.V., January 2021), https://reliefweb.int/report/world/global-climate-risk-index-2021.
Blair Hedges et al., “Haiti’s Biodiversity Threatened by Nearly Complete Loss of Primary Forest,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 46 (October 29, 2018): 11850–55, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1809753115.
European Environment Agency, “Forests Can Help Prevent Floods and Droughts — European Environment Agency,” www.eea.europa.eu, September 24, 2015, https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/forests-can-help-prevent-floods.
Rocio Cara Labrador and Diana Roy, “Haiti’s Troubled Path to Development,” cfr.org (Council on Foreign Relations, September 17, 2017), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/haitis-troubled-path-development#chapter-title-0-4.
P. J. Hudson, “The National City Bank of New York and Haiti, 1909 – 1922,” Radical History
Review 2013, no. 115 (December 17, 2012): 91–114, https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-1724733.
Aaron O’Neill, “Haiti – Trade Balance of Goods 2020,” Statista, March 1, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/576507/trade-balance-of-haiti/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20Haiti%27s%20trade%20deficit.
Central Intelligence Agency, “Haiti – the World Factbook,” www.cia.gov, 2021, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/haiti/.
Jake Johnston, “Clinton E-Mails Point to US Intervention in 2010 Haiti Elections,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 7, 2016, https://cepr.net/clinton-e-mails-point-to-us-intervention-in-2010-haiti-elections/.
Tim Wallace, Ashley Wu, and Jugal K. Patel, “How Haiti Was Devastated by Two Natural Disasters in Three Days,” The New York Times, August 18, 2021, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/18/world/americas/haiti-earthquake-grace.html.
World Bank Group, “World Bank Climate Change Knowledge Portal,” climateknowledgeportal.worldbank.org (World Bank Group, 2020), https://climateknowledgeportal.worldbank.org/country/haiti/vulnerability.
Radley Horton et al., “Assessing Climate Risk in Myanmar: Technical Report,” Burma Library (World Wildlife Federation, March 2017), https://www.burmalibrary.org/docs23/Final_Technical_Report_-_Assessing_Climate_Risk_in_Myanmar-red.pdf.
Hannah Ritchie, “Who Has Contributed Most to Global CO2 Emissions?,” Our World in Data (Oxford Martin, October 1, 2019), https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2.
Desmond Brown, “Haiti’s Cry for Help as Climate Change Is Compared to an Act of Violence against the Island Nation,” Inter Press Service, December 13, 2019, http://www.ipsnews.net/2019/12/haitis-cry-help-climate-change-compared-act-violence-island-nation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=haitis-cry-help-climate-change-compared-act-violence-island-nation.
Raoni Rajão and Tiago Duarte, “Performing Postcolonial Identities at the United Nations’ Climate Negotiations,” Postcolonial Studies 21, no. 3 (June 12, 2018): 364–78, https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2018.1482597.
UNFCC, “Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs),” Unfccc.int, 2021, https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/nationally-determined-contributions-ndcs/nationally-determined-contributions-ndcs#eq-4.
Presidents of COP 23 and COP 24, “Talanoa Call for Action,” in Talanoa Dialogue (Talanoa Dialogue, UNFCC, 2018), https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Talanoa%20Call%20for%20Action.pdf.
- PBS NewsHour. “Only 2 Countries Are Meeting Their Climate Pledges. Here’s How the 10 Worst Could Improve.” PBS NewsHour, September 26, 2019. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/only-2-countries-are-meeting-their-climate-pledges-heres-how-the-10-worst-could-improve.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Summary for Policymakers.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2022. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGII_SummaryForPolicymakers.pdf.
- Eckstein, David, Vera Künzel, and Laura Schäfer. “Global Climate Risk Index 2021.” Global Climate Risk Index 2021 – World I Relief Web. Germany: Germanwatch e.V., January 2021. https://reliefweb.int/report/world/global-climate-risk-index-2021.
- Hedges, S. Blair, Warren B. Cohen, Joel Timyan, and Zhiqiang Yang. “Haiti’s Biodiversity Threatened by Nearly Complete Loss of Primary Forest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 46 (October 29, 2018): 11850–55. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1809753115.
- European Environment Agency. “Forests Can Help Prevent Floods and Droughts — European Environment Agency.” www.eea.europa.eu, September 24, 2015. https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/forests-can-help-prevent-floods.
- Cara Labrador, Rocio, and Diana Roy. “Haiti’s Troubled Path to Development.” cfr.org. Council on Foreign Relations, September 17, 2017. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/haitis-troubled-path-development#chapter-title-0-4.
- Hudson, P. J. “The National City Bank of New York and Haiti, 1909 – 1922.” Radical History Review 2013, no. 115 (December 17, 2012): 91–114. https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-1724733.
- O’Neill, Aaron. “Haiti – Trade Balance of Goods 2020.” Statista, March 1, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/576507/trade-balance-of-haiti/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20Haiti%27s%20trade%20deficit.
- Central Intelligence Agency. “Haiti – the World Factbook.” www.cia.gov, 2021. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/haiti/.
- Johnston, Jake. “Clinton E-Mails Point to US Intervention in 2010 Haiti Elections.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 7, 2016. https://cepr.net/clinton-e-mails-point-to-us-intervention-in-2010-haiti-elections/.
- Wallace, Tim, Ashley Wu, and Jugal K. Patel. “How Haiti Was Devastated by Two Natural Disasters in Three Days.” The New York Times, August 18, 2021, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/18/world/americas/haiti-earthquake-grace.html.
- World Bank Group. “World Bank Climate Change Knowledge Portal.” climateknowledgeportal.worldbank.org. World Bank Group, 2020. https://climateknowledgeportal.worldbank.org/country/haiti/vulnerability.
- Horton, Radley, Manishka De Mel, Danielle Peters, Corey Lesk, Ryan Bartlett, Hanna Helsingen, Daniel Bader, Pasquale Capizzi, Shaun Martin, and Cynthia Rosenzweig. “Assessing Climate Risk in Myanmar: Technical Report.” Burma Library. World Wildlife Federation, March 2017. https://www.burmalibrary.org/docs23/Final_Technical_Report_-_Assessing_Climate_Risk_in_Myanmar-red.pdf.
- Ritchie, Hannah. “Who Has Contributed Most to Global CO2 Emissions?” Our World in Data. Oxford Martin, October 1, 2019. https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2.
- Brown, Desmond. “Haiti’s Cry for Help as Climate Change Is Compared to an Act of Violence against the Island Nation.” Inter Press Service, December 13, 2019. http://www.ipsnews.net/2019/12/haitis-cry-help-climate-change-compared-act-violence-island-nation/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=haitis-cry-help-climate-change-compared-act-violence-island-nation.
- Rajão, Raoni, and Tiago Duarte. “Performing Postcolonial Identities at the United Nations’ Climate Negotiations.” Postcolonial Studies 21, no. 3 (June 12, 2018): 364–78. https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2018.1482597.
- UNFCC. “Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).” Unfccc.int, 2021. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/nationally-determined-contributions-ndcs/nationally-determined-contributions-ndcs#eq-4.
- Presidents of COP 23 and COP 24. “Talanoa Call for Action.” In Talanoa Dialogue. UNFCC, 2018. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/Talanoa%20Call%20for%20Action.pdf.