The Commonwealth countries (or more accurately, “The Commonwealth of Nations”) refers to a group of 53 countries that were mostly territories of the former British Empire. On one level, Commonwealth countries are united by the English language, culture and their “shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”, according to the Commonwealth website. On a deeper level, however, a legacy of being historically exploited and systematically disadvantaged also unites us. The legacy of colonization can still be observed in many, if not all, of these Commonwealth countries.
However, a question kept popping up in my head that I felt compelled to ask some of the panelists after the side event had concluded: What do you guys think of the influence of the legacy of colonialism on climate change response and on the “playing out” of the COP 21 negotiations?
The responses to my question amazed me. However, it was also a relief to hear these responses because they showed me that people were still aware of how past colonialism, or even neo-colonialism can impact the outcome of these climate negotiations.
One panelist, who was from Jamaica (like me), told me that she personally felt that the negotiations were a farce. She pointed to the continuous debate over the fate of the Green Climate Fund, as one example, as well as the potential negative impacts that REDD+ may have on groups of people who are living in and who have historically managed forest spaces. Additionally, as several small countries are pushing for a 1.5°C limit, there is pushback from more powerful countries against this limit, even though recent science would advocate more for a 1.5°C limit (as opposed to 2°C).
Another panelist also told me that while she was optimistic of the Commonwealth Youth Climate Change Network in itself, more broadly she was worried how these negotiations may contribute to neo-colonialism in her country, Samoa. For instance, she spoke of the impact that her country’s national debt was having on their negotiations with corporations and bigger countries to aid in climate change response.
These concerns are all alarming, but well justified. With the release of recent draft texts, combined efforts of current INDCs allegedly do not even allow the limiting of global temperature to 2°C by the end of this century.
On the topic of colonialism, however, it is interesting to see that rich countries are seemingly evading their financial obligations to poorer, historically exploited countries. The prospects of the Green Climate Fund remain uncertain. Meanwhile, some influential formerly imperialist (some would contend currently imperialist) countries such as the United States, Spain, and Japan, had not, as of April 2015, signed contributions to the Green Climate fund. Not to disregard the economic challenges that some of these “rich” countries face, it is still imperative to address the ethical ramifications of such evasive actions towards climate change response. Funding climate change response for developing countries is not just an issue of the rich helping the poor.
Historically, a lot of current developing countries were exploited and victim to extractive institutions which to this day still impacts their capacity to put together and run functional national institutions that serve their respective societies. Climate justice is not just about the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of climate change response policies. Justice also has a compensatory dimension; there is an obligation for certain powerful countries to assist formerly colonized countries to correct for the disadvantages that they currently face from historic oppression.
So yes, I was relieved to know that my Commonwealth peers were still aware of how past colonialism and neo-colonialism can impact the outcome of these climate negotiations. However, it is my hope that other groups of people will also acknowledge the impact of the legacy of colonialism on each country’s negotiating capacity. Rich countries are not “doing developing countries a favor” by funding the GCF and involving forest communities of people in REDD+ management. It is through historically-based obligations that developing countries are entitled to such funds, to a 1.5°C limit, and to equitable management of local resources. Hopefully the negotiators and higher powers of the most powerful countries realize that very soon.