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Climate change and neo-colonialism.

December 10, 2009

The Washington Post reports today on the hard line the United States is taking in terms of a climate agreement at Cop15:

The United States is willing to be a full partner in fighting climate change, but the real problem is with China and the developing world.

Now, I really question whether the U.S. is willing to be a “full partner in fighting climate change”, considering that we never ratified the Kyoto Protocol (the international climate agreement that will run out in 2012 which many hope an agreement from COP15 will replace), but the important issue here is the “problem” with China and the developing world. National media about the climate talks tend to emphasize the ‘antagonistic’ and ‘uncompromising’ stance of the G-77 countries and particularly China, when describing why a binding agreement is unlikely. Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, further said:

Emissions are emissions. You’ve just got to do the math, [citing estimates that 97 percent of future emissions growth will come from the developing world.] If you care about the science, and we do, there is no way to solve this problem by giving the major developing countries a pass.

Throughout these reports, its repeatedly mentioned that China is currently the largest producer of emissions, which is true. But let’s do some other math: The BBC provided this graph which shows three ways to look at emissions:

Obviously, framing the data the way the U.S. media does is successful tool for gaining support for their interests in the climate change agreement, and certainly the G77 and China are also only using a portion of the data, that of historical emissions, to argue for a agreement in their best interests. But this reframing of “the math” is more pernicious than just a clever marketing tool. It’s a concerted effort to hide histories of western colonialism and extreme global inequities in wealth. U.S. “development” was literally built on the backs of African colonization, resources appropriated from other countries through destructive military and political interventions, and international trade organizations which value corporations over national sovereignty and global health. We should not be proud of the way the U.S. was developed, and along this sundry path the western world has produced an incredible amount of emissions which has impelled us into this current crisis. Now when we talk about development, we ask countries to conform to western standards through capitalist pressures and international trade and political organizations – but expect them to do it carbon free and respecting human rights, exactly the opposite of western development. These goals are noble and attainable, but we cannot call for them within this neocolonialist hypocrisy. It erases the bodies of people from the global south who suffered so that we could attain our current place as world police and moral arbiter.

There is also an implication when describing China and developing nations as the largest producer of carbon emissions, that they are living in excess and abundance. Because carbon emissions in the United States is linked with a booming economy and superfluous SUVs and strip malls, there is a distinct value judgment on the *new largest producer of emissions. It allows us to project all the accusations of U.S. greed and gluttony onto the countries who will have the most future emissions growth. This story hides the reality of per capita emissions, where the U.S. far exceeds China, and the extreme wealth differences between people in the United States and those in China and the G-77. I find it a pretty disgusting form of neo-colonialism, which allows us to silence true global inequalities, which aren’t just in national carbon emissions, but the health, happiness, and agency of individual bodies

I really think now is the time for the United States to listen. To listen to the protesters from around the world who are calling for a real deal, to listen to Tuvalu, a tiny island nation that is among those most severly threatened by climate change, when they call for a legally binding agreement, to listen to the women of the global south, who are most affected by environmental degradation, and hold ourselves accountable to them.

I’m sorry if I’m hijacking happy bodies to talk about climate change, but I really think the issue intimately relates to global injustices that privilege some bodies over others, global health, and sexist, racist and neo-colonial structures. So it relates to bodies, and is too important to skip.

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