Climate Change

Carbon Colonialism and Loss and Damage

The United Nations Climate Change conference, COP 27, is currently being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and “loss and damage” is emerging as a major issue. Loss and damage is the United Nations’ category for the responsibility of wealthy countries, with their vastly disproportionate contribution to climate change, to pay to help poorer countries survive climate crises they have not caused. The wealthy countries refusal so far to live up to their commitments in this area is a serious moral failure.

In this context, I’d like to share an excerpt of a post that I wrote for the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference in July 2022. The history of the Episcopal Church’s connections with colonialism make clear that, for the Episcopal Church and other religious bodies, this question of loss and damage is also a serious theological issue.

The Currents of Colonialism

Climate change, like the Anglican Communion, has spread through the world on the currents of colonialism.

It has become commonplace to acknowledge that the worst harms of climate change fall, and will continue to fall, disproportionately and unjustly on those countries and communities least responsible for it, and that those countries with the most historical responsibility will suffer least. Developing nations and island nations have a special degree of climate vulnerability: they are simultaneously more susceptible to the extreme effects of climate change, such as drought and sea-level rise, and less able to adapt to these effects because of their relative lack of financial resources. The fact that the per capita greenhouse gas emissions of the wealthier nations is dozens of times that of most of these more vulnerable nations has led some to speak of the “carbon debt” that is owed. Of course, that this inequality is broadly recognized does not make it any less urgent; nor, shamefully, has this broader awareness led to any significant steps to repay the debt.

What is less often recognized, however, is the way these current and future climate injustices are built on long-established patterns of geopolitical injustice. The unequal distribution of climate harms is not simply an unfortunate result of geophysical dynamics like air and ocean currents and sea levels. Rather, these harms are shaped as much by the historical routes of military conquest, economic exploitation, and the slave trade as by atmospheric forces and the so-called “ocean conveyor belt.”

Indian author Amitav Ghosh has explored these colonial dynamics of climate change in depth. In his book The Nutmeg’s Curse, he offers the history of the nutmeg trade, aided by the forced removal and genocide of the Bandanese from the archipelago where the spice grew, as a parable of such climate colonialism. The conflict in the Banda archipelago was not only between Europeans and islanders, nor only between capitalism and those it deemed expendable. Rather, it was a conflict between ways of seeing the world: as meaningful and animate, a place of relationship and responsibility, or as a collection of resources to be conquered and exhausted.[1] This conflict played out around the world in the centuries of colonialism, as Europeans categorized human and nonhuman (or more-than-human) others along a hierarchical scale. People and lands became mere objects, designated for exploitation and extermination for the increasing concentration of wealth and power by the colonizers. This same process of objectification is reflected in the climate injustice of today. In Ghosh’s words, “fossil fuels have from the start been enmeshed with human lives in ways that tend to reinforce the power of the ruling classes.”[2]

Climate colonialism is not only a historical phenomenon, however. “A new era of economic colonialism by the fossil fuel companies is well underway,” warns Canon Rachel Mash of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Access to fossil fuels remains a means through which a minority, including the historical colonial powers, maintain dominance, and through many of the same mechanisms used in the past. Chief among these, of course, is military might. Ghosh points out that the United States military has actually been a leader in climate change research and adoption of alternative energy sources (at the same time that it is also the largest single energy consumer in the country).[3] Paradoxically, it has taken these steps in order to maintain U.S. military dominance — in other words, to continue to defend precisely the primary drivers of climate change, in the carbon economy and the political and social systems that support it.[4]

The fact is that a true transition away from fossil fuels would represent a cataclysmic geopolitical transformation. The kind of actions needed to avoid crossing the internationally agreed-upon threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius average global heating will require unprecedented international cooperation. A shift to green energy alternatives will overturn existing political and economic dynamics and create new winners and losers. The only way to ensure that such a transition is just and effective will be to confront the lasting effects of colonialism.

The Anglican Communion, of course, was borne on these same currents of colonialism. The majority of Anglican provinces today are in places that were once British colonies. The church gave ideological sanction to the political enterprise of colonization, and in return benefitted from the protection and support of the state. In the words of Brazilian bishop Glauco S. de Lima, “the Anglican Communion has been shaped by the old condition of ‘the crown next to the cross.’”[5]

To recognize the historical truth that the spread of Anglicanism is deeply tied to colonialism is not to deny the good that has emerged from that history.  We can, I think, affirm that colonialism is profoundly antagonistic to God’s purposes in the world while also believing that God can nonetheless turn such evil acts toward those good purposes.

Untangling these legacies, however, will require our environmental witness to be more decolonial than it has previously been. Of course, the church should continue to take meaningful action towards mitigating climate change by trying to track and reduce its emissions, investing in alternative energies, supporting agricultural and reforestation projects that sequester greenhouse gasses, and practicing good stewardship of our lands. Yet it is clear that such steps will be self-defeating as long as we fail to recognize and repent of — in the biblical sense of conversion — the ways our long implication in colonialism continues to drive catastrophic climate change.

[Read the full post here. Thanks to The Living Church‘s “Covenant” blog for permission to share.]

The Episcopal Church’s delegation to COP 27 has emphasized loss and damage in its policy priorities, urging all stakeholders to prioritize commitments to the most vulnerable populations. In light of the history recounted here, this is an urgent moral obligation for all wealthy nations.

[1] Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, First edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 36–39.

[2] Ghosh, 102.

[3] Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 122.

[4] Ghosh, 126.

[5] Glauco S. de Lima, Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century. (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2000), 2.

[6] Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 122.

Published by Andrew Thompson

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