The Global Injustice of the Climate Crisis
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
A closer examination of the climate crisis and how the Global South is facing the consequences of the Global North's environmental destruction.
The fight against climate change is a global fight. Yet a closer examination of the climate crisis reveals the inequality between the Global North and Global South: how developing countries have an increased exposure to the harmful effects of climate change at the expense of the Global North’s economic progress, and must carry the burden of their environmental destruction.
Climate change is not a purely physical or environmental phenomenon, but one tied to political and ethical issues. The idea of ‘climate justice’ underlines this social element. When examining justice in the context of climate change, it becomes clear that distribution and marginalisation of communities are core issues which need to be considered. Historically marginalised communities, such as women, people of colour and indigenous peoples, are affected most by the climate crisis. Christian Aid’s Hunger Strike: The Climate and Food Vulnerability Index found that the 10 countries with the highest rate of food insecurity contribute a total of 0.08% to global carbon dioxide emissions. This is a stark contrast to developed countries, where food wasted by consumers per capita in Europe and North America ranges from 95-115 kilograms per year, compared to 6-11 kilograms in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South East Asia, reports UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Achieving a sustainable future is a worldwide commitment. Yet it seems developing countries are the ones that face the consequences of developed countries’ environmental destruction, whilst remaining unprotected from climate disasters. Breaking down the issue of global injustice of the climate crisis into three parts; its colonial roots, the role of markets and consumption, and the political consequences, we can see the disparity between the Global North and Global South, and the need for countries in the Global North to take responsibility for their role as mass polluters and provide support to developing countries.
Looking back: Colonialism and the climate crisis
Historically, developed countries have contributed most to climate change. According to Eos, a magazine published by the American Geophysical Union, the Global North is responsible for 92% of excess emissions, rooted in its industrial history.
Rostow’s model of modernisation underlines industrialisation as a key stage for developing countries to 'modernise' and become more like developed countries. The burden of the Global South to pay for the emissions mainly created by the Global North is therefore inherently linked to a colonial past.
Goldsmiths professor Eyal Weizman underlines that the current mode of climate change is not only "an unintentional consequence of industrialisation", but highlights how the climate "has always been a project for colonial powers, which have continually acted to engineer it". The ‘modernisation’ projects of the Global North in their respective colonies therefore has implications for environmental degradation, and the Global South’s vulnerability is directly linked to colonial history
Markets and consumption
Such notions of modernity still govern global networks and have serious implications for the Global South and its vulnerability to climate disasters. This is inherently linked to global markets and conspicuous consumption. Environmental activist and scholar Vandana Shiva argues that the struggle for climate justice and trade justice is in fact, one struggle. The climate crisis has arisen from an economic model based on fossil fuel energy and resource-intensive production and consumption systems. As a result, globalisation and global markets are dominated by corporate rule that prioritises profit and neglects environmental impacts and emissions. In other words, it is no coincidence that high polluting countries are among the most economically powerful in the world.
Developing countries are stuck in this structure. Dependency Theory explains a world system which is dependent on resources flowing from ‘periphery states’ (states that are considered underdeveloped or developing) to core and wealthier states, at the expense of the former. The issue of climate change further enhances the North-South divide, as countries of the Global South have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions yet remain the most vulnerable to climate change disasters.
This global injustice of the climate crisis is therefore systemic and is deeply rooted in economic markets and consumption. The 'Western' consumer culture, which encourages conspicuous and wasteful consumption, is the driving force which maintains this unequal structure of resource distribution and production. Through issues such as food waste, water usage and fast fashion, Western consumer culture can be said to be the everyday reproduction of the global injustice of the climate crisis between the Global North and Global South.
Outsourcing manufacturing is a core element of global injustice in the context of the climate crisis, as it results in both the exploitation of developing countries, as well as environmental degradation. The rise of multinational corporations and monopolisation through big industry brands has led to an increase of high-capital companies producing and manufacturing offshore, particularly in post-colonial states and the Global South. This reduces their cost of production, as well as regulation pressures to ensure ethical working conditions and pay, endangering the lives of labourers as well as ignoring questions of carbon emissions and sustainability. In her book Fashionopolis, Dana Thomas emphasises this as she uses the 2012 Dhaka garment factory fire to underline how industry growth and profit are in parallel with the exploitation of developing countries and an increase in environmental disasters.
This proposes a paradox of globalisation: the world becomes more interconnected in supply chains and trade but becomes distant in terms of climate cooperation and fair distribution of resources. Such a dissociation allows countries in the Global North to dissolve any sense of responsibility and maintain a world structure whereby developing countries continue to carry the burden of the climate crisis.
The global injustice in fighting climate change is therefore inherently political. While climate change affects the whole globe, the ability to prevent and protect against environmental disasters vary drastically between the Global North and Global South. Developing countries are less resilient to environmental disasters. In communities that are heavily dependent on agricultural exports, damage to crops, deforestation, draught, etc. there are more serious implications for their community wealth and competitiveness in the global economy. The Chronic Poverty Report underlines how this affects the standards of living in these areas and increases chronic poverty and unemployment.
Subsequently, countries in the Global South are often left out of discussions and planning when negotiating climate change policies. Despite being heavily impacted by natural disasters and environmental degradation, marginalised groups are also often excluded from the planning processes at local, national and international level for both minimising damage and implementing solutions to disasters. The gap between the Global North and Global South becomes clear: what developing communities want versus what industrialised nations are prepared to do.
A lack of cooperation from the Global North has led developing countries to create space for other actors and initiatives to build resilience against the climate crisis. The growing role of activism in climate action as well as formalised legal bodies of climate justice, known as climate change litigation, can further combat global injustices in the climate crisis.
Developing countries have also turned to technology to build resistance against natural disasters. The use of blockchains in India, to monitor agricultural land registries and equally distribute wind and solar energy to rural areas is an example of this. However, while innovation and activism are crucial pillars in solving the climate crisis, they should not be an alternative to aid from the Global North. Developed countries should extend their efforts to help developing states to combat the climate crisis.
The fight against climate change is a global fight. A global initiative is the only way to save the planet. Therefore, countries in the Global North must recognise their role and responsibility in the fight for to save the environment.
In doing so, they must address their imperialist past, exploitative structures and their effect on the environment, and strive to include developing countries in all climate change discussions. They must minimise the North-South divide by both taking responsibility for their own environmental degradation, as well as building bridges with developing countries, for the world to truly become more sustainable and resilient against the climate crisis.
Visit our Climate Crisis section for more informative analyses of current environmental issues.