When it comes to climate change, the heavy hand of colonizers is as important as our carbon footprint

Why are we spending our focus, energy, and resources on decarbonizing oppression and exploitation, rather than on this very oppression and exploitation that created the climate crisis? writes Stephanie Arnold.

Solutions that do not disrupt our legal, social and economic structures will not help us

High school students advocate for the lower of two UN climate targets, 1.5 C, during a climate protest in Montreal in 2019. Some environmental experts say keeping global warming to 1.5 C would lead to less extremes of heat, rainfall and drought than the original target of 2 C. (Louise Gravel/Radio-Canada)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

This column is an opinion from Stephanie Arnold, a climate change and adaptation researcher in P.E.I. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

World leaders are meeting in Scotland at COP26 to urge action, make promises, and develop plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — just as they have in 2019 at COP25 in Spain, 2018 at COP24 in Poland, 2017 at COP23 in Germany, etc.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

Reducing our carbon footprint is important; so is increasing our use of renewable energy. But developing plans centered on carbon accounting and energy mix is a futile exercise that distracts us. Even if they do slow down climate change, the world will still be left drowning in rampant, unmitigated social and environmental disasters. Is this what we are all striving for?

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Why are we spending our focus, energy, and resources on decarbonizing oppression and exploitation, rather than on this very oppression and exploitation that created the climate crisis?

It took a lot of learning and unlearning to ask that question.

At the core of it is the understanding that the climate crisis is a colonial, white supremacist construct. Legal scholar Carmen G. Gonzalez pointed out that the European colonizers used oppressive practices to transform the subsistence economics of the Global South into economic satellites of Europe. This process warmed the planet while creating wealth for colonial powers. The domination and exploitation of BIPOC peoples, lands, and ecosystems continue to this day and span across the globe, fueling the climate crisis.

Asking the right questions

Once we start asking the right questions, the answers become self-apparent. With this understanding, it becomes clear that solving the climate crisis requires us to commit to decolonization and to reexamine our values.

Take the recent attacks on the Mi'kmaq fishers and fisheries as an example. The Mi'kmaq have a constitutionally protected right to fish. The continued infringement of those rights is a deliberate choice to value profits and commercial interests over treaty rights. The group West Coast Environmental Law reminds us that conservation has been used historically to mask racist motivations. Mi'kmaq fishers have managed fisheries sustainably through their own laws and processes for millennia. If not for commercial fisheries, there would be no concerns for conservation.

P.E.I. is expected to feel the effects of climate change dramatically. Experts warn scenes like this one from post-tropical storm Dorian could become more common on the Island. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

To decolonize and address the climate crisis, we need to value treaty rights over profits and commercial interests. The values that push us to decolonize also push us to respect peoples, lands, and ecosystems.

Now the hard work can begin

Recentring our core values will not be easy. It will disrupt personal relationships, social fabrics, economic systems, political systems, legal systems, etc. — many of which are long-standing and deeply entrenched. 

But this is how we can meaningfully tackle the climate crisis and all other social injustices we face today. When we focus on the right things to push back on, everything else will fall into place.

For example, we need to push back on fast fashion not because of the waste it generates, but because we object to how it exploits natural, human, and social systems to produce clothes so "cheaply." When we refuse to conveniently ignore the hidden social, human, and environmental costs of our daily decisions and alter our consumption patterns, the types and amounts of waste we produce will automatically change. When our priorities are adjusted, our decision-making processes will change, and the impacts of our decisions will follow.

Everything is connected

The benefit of focusing on values rather than specific, discrete climate actions is that it helps us to make the types of fundamental change we need to get ourselves out of this mess. We also begin to see how everything is connected. We can start to incorporate social issues in climate policy and climate issues in social policy.

I have always felt that the close-knit social fabric of P.E.I. and the creativity of Islanders allow us to punch well above our weight, time and time again. I am optimistic that we can be the status quo in waiting.- Stephanie Arnold

We also start to ask the right questions of ourselves and each other. Instead of asking how we can maintain the status quo while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, we can start to ask, who does the status quo benefit? Who does it harm? How does it contribute to the crises at hand?

Another benefit of using a value-based approach is recognizing the harm climate actions could cause and designing them to address inequities instead.

The solar equity gap

For example, when policies focus solely on decarbonization, governments may provide subsidies for residential solar panels. These subsidies are used primarily by homeowners who can likely afford the panels to begin with, but are prompted to install them sooner because the subsidies make the economics much more attractive. Over time, their heating and cooling costs go down, putting money in their pockets.

People who rent, who cannot afford homes, or who cannot afford the solar panels even with the subsidies in place will continue to use less efficient, more carbon intensive ways to heat and cool their homes. Over time, their costs will go up.

Residential subsidies for solar panels will benefit those with higher incomes while lower wage earners will continue to pay more for less efficient heating sources, argues Stephanie Arnold. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

This solar equity gap continues to grow between higher-income households and low- to medium-income households. But if we value equity, we can easily flip this around.

With a different financing approach, for example, offering loans tied to the property assessment rather than the individuals, some of the barriers can be removed. The United States goes a step further, with an executive order that directs the government to spend at least 40 per cent of its sustainability investments on disadvantaged communities. These investments include clean energy, energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce deployment, and development of critical clean water infrastructure.

The status quo in waiting

While we may not be the original colonizers, we have benefitted from and reinforced – directly or indirectly – the legal, social, and economic structures that continually oppress and exploit Indigenous peoples and commodify lands.

These structures are also feeding the climate crisis and other social crises.

Solutions that are developed within these structures, by these structures, but do not disrupt the structures will not help us.

I have always felt that the close-knit social fabric of P.E.I. and the creativity of Islanders allow us to punch well above our weight, time and time again. I am optimistic that we can be the status quo in waiting.


Stephanie Arnold is a climate change and adaptation researcher, WIIS-Canada Top 25 "Emerging Thought Leader", and proud member of BIPOC USHR.