What does colonialism have to do with climate change?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing, Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum, Minji Sung, Data Visuals and Content Specialist, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum


  • Flooding in Pakistan has revived interest in the relationship between the colonial past and the present climate crisis.
  • A number of countries scarred by colonialism are now at a disadvantage in terms of dealing with the crisis.
  • They’re also responsible for a relatively small portion of global emissions.

When flooding amplified by climate change began to submerge nearly a third of Pakistan recently, a remnant of the country’s colonial past stood between the deluge and hundreds of thousands of people: the Sukkur Barrage.

It wasn’t certain that the 90-year-old diversion dam, a onetime engineering triumph designed by local British rulers but since cited for safety issues and described as “decrepit”, would endure – making it a potentially fatal burden and a symbol of the corrosive impact of colonialism on much of the world.

The dam held, despite Pakistan’s “monsoon on steroids”. Other outcomes have been less fortunate. A German non-profit’s list of the 10 countries most affected by climate change-related extreme weather events during the first two decades of this century includes eight former colonies (one isn’t technically a country, and remains a US territory sometimes described as a colony).

Clearly, one part of the world was exploited for the other’s gain, helping set each up for very different experiences as the climate crisis worsens.

Awareness of this dynamic seems to be growing. The IPCC, a panel of leading scientists that’s issued closely watched reports on climate change since 1990, explicitly mentioned “colonialism” for the first time earlier this year. The practice left behind “development challenges” that heighten vulnerability to climate impacts, it said.

One thing shared by many former colonies disproportionately impacted by climate change: a relatively small carbon footprint. Pakistan is responsible for about one megatonne of emissions per capita annually, compared with well over four in the UK, and more than 13 in the US.

In a recent interview, Pakistan’s climate change minister noted this limited emissions contribution, and cited “historic injustices” in many countries located near the equator that are now paying a price for “other peoples’ reckless carbon consumption”.

In 2009, wealthy nations committed to raising $100 billion annually by 2020 to help less-wealthy counterparts – many of them once colonized – fight climate change. But the effort fell short.

Imperialism, exploitation and climate impacts

The British Raj, which included present-day Pakistan, is far from the only historical example of an exploitative colonial presence.

Another curious case: the “filibusters”, or private mercenaries who ventured from the US into Latin America in the 19th century to seize land, sometimes with support from back home. William Walker, a lawyer from Tennessee, managed to install himself as president of Nicaragua and win official US recognition of his regime in 1856 before being executed by a firing squad.

There was also the intensive colonization of Africa by European countries in the 19th century. Belgian King Leopold II seized what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo as his private property, for example, and proceeded to extract its rubber in a way that cost millions of lives.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, among the poorest nations in the world, offered up the rights to drill for oil and gas in its old-growth rainforests earlier this year – raising serious concerns about the potential impact on global climate progress.

Leaving money on the table to contribute to that progress is a luxury not everyone can afford, the country’s climate representative seemed to say in an interview. “Our priority is not to save the planet,” he added.

Working together to put post-colonial countries on a more solid climate footing will require navigating sensitive issues related to accountability, sovereignty, and basic fairness.

One means of addressing the disparity might be through reparations.

A UK politician recently called for paying exactly that type of financial compensation to Pakistan, which she noted has been dealing not just with catastrophic floods but also spiraling inflation.

Most modelling for such reparations involves paying amounts in addition to the annual $100 billion once promised to developing countries (a scheme that may yet come together).

Meanwhile there may be other, more contemporary versions of colonialism that these countries must concern themselves with.

Green” colonialism, for example, or efforts to boost sustainability that end up hurting marginalized groups like Indigenous people, has been cited in a number of places around the world.

More reading on climate change and colonialism

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • “We kept crying and screaming after the 2010 floods.” The second catastrophic deluge in Pakistan in 12 years has spurred louder calls for climate reparations, according to this report. (The New Humanitarian)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo may have stirred anxiety by offering up protected areas for oil and gas drilling, but according to this analysis the move reflects understandable frustration and a determination to “reclaim sovereignty”. (Land Portal)
  • Australia ponders its role in “colonizing” Antarctica – it’s one of seven countries with territorial claims in the southernmost continent, where a small group of states assume the right to make decisions but also abide by self-imposed restrictions on resource use. (Australian Institute of International Affairs)
  • Crushing national debt can be a decisive aspect of the climate crisis, hobbling the ability to secure protection from disaster. According to this report, one Caribbean island’s leader is fighting to find a way out. (ProPublica)
  • “I have to start my life from zero.” Pakistan’s heavy debt load and overwhelmed international humanitarian agencies mean people there will have to fund much of the cost of the flood recovery themselves, according to this report. (Eco-Business)
  • Algeria wasn’t just a French colony, it was a “department” of France before breaking away in 1962. According to this analysis, a recent visit paid by the French president was notable for his “contrite tone” on matters like a war of independence that cost millions of lives. (LSE)
  • Western imperialism had an “old” period between 1450 and 1650 and a “new” one from 1870 to 1919, according to this piece. Both were marked by the exploitation of Indigenous cultures and the extraction of natural resources to benefit imperial economies. (JSTOR Daily)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, Human Rights and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum

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