How not to save the planet

In this, the first of a series of posts, we critically look at the implications of climate policy in the most powerful Western country for Africans.

A municipal worker cleans canals that reduce the risk of flooding in Beira, Mozambique. Image credit Sarah Farhat for the World Bank via Flickr.

With presidential elections weeks away, the US Congress and a “unity” task force stitched together by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden have offered two major climate proposals. These plans offer a route to the “green” recovery that Western advocates have touted to resolve the pre-existing inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed. More importantly, they seek to reassert US imperialism with the climate crisis as guise.

The Biden task force plan and the Democratic Party’s congressional committee report on the climate crisis claim to put forward environmental justice reforms. Nonetheless these plans are steeped in climate imperialism. Littered throughout are proposals that consider the climate crisis a national security threat for the US. The global South is also treated as a problem to be solved and policed, especially as the potential major source of climate refugees. The Paris Agreement, which was abandoned by the US and is now increasingly viewed as ineffective by scientists, is treated as the gold standard for fairer climate policy. Yet, the global South only has resort to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up in 2010 as a the global financial mechanism to catalyze climate action among developing nations, and which has increasingly been subsumed in the sphere of a US-dominated financial system.

At this juncture it bears repeating that the US, followed by the European Union (EU)—made up of colonial and imperial powers—are, historically, the biggest contributors to the crisis. Together they contribute 47 percent of global historical carbon emissions. Neither the US congressional climate plan, nor Biden’s task force report urgently reflect on the implications of this fact. Instead, these climate proposals entrench colonial and imperial ideas and policies based upon continuing subordination of the global South through climate capitalism. It is no secret that Southern African countries  lead the world in terms of exposure to climate change (followed closely by Caribbean and Pacific Island states), and the potential of utilizing the military to meet the US objectives is not an exaggeration.

The climate crisis congressional committee report indicates that “[d]eveloping countries are especially ill-prepared to face the impacts of climate change.” Further, the report deems the climate threat, which has already upended life and livelihoods in the global South, as an investment opportunity to “facilitate commercialization of affordable carbon capture retrofit technologies for export to the developing world.”

Meanwhile, the Biden-Sanders “unity” committee’s plan (co-chaired by congressperson Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and former US secretary of State John Kerry) is no less dangerous. It suggests that the “the United States does not stand alone in the fight against climate change and global environmental degradation” but does not in any way recognize the country’s environmental crimes. These further increase the burden on marginalized countries facing climate devastation, while calling on those same countries as “partners and allies to increase their ambition to reduce their own carbon pollution.” This version of trickle-down climate policy is far from the radical agenda the world needs.

Western media share the political aims of their public representatives when it comes to climate change. A recent BBC climate report on the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season bizarrely attributed warmer sea surface temperatures, increased rainfall and rapid formation of tropical storms to a “seed” rooted in Central Africa. This can truly stand as a meme for the West’s historicizing of the climate crisis that will only continue under a Biden presidency.

Biden’s track record is clear. In the Obama administration, the Africa agenda continued to couple “investment” in African countries with increased militarism. His US$2 trillion presidential climate agenda is similarly framed in militaristic terms. Looking back, Biden had a prominent role in energy diplomacy during Barack Obama’s presidency, whose US$7 billion dollar “Power Africa” scheme aimed to enrich multinational private sector energy providers like General Electric, through a continent-wide electrification agenda.

The immense US military infrastructure across African countries, now estimated at 29 bases and additional installments, and the Democrats linking the climate crisis and a potential rise in climate refugees as “national security threats,” offer us a potential glimpse as to how climate action might be enforced under a Biden presidency. When Biden, as vice president, launched the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, it was meant to sabotage and reassert US power in the hemisphere, in the face of the widening anti-neoliberal influence of Venezuela. As anthropologist Ryan Jobson, of the University of Chicago, noted in 2015, “alternative energy, rather than a means of reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change, is invoked here as a means of undermining the growing popularity and political influence of the Bolivarian Republic in the Caribbean.”

While some form of global climate action is necessary, we cannot let the specter of US imperialism escape scrutiny. There is need for a more reflective, sound, and progressive agenda based on international solidarity to reverse and atone for the major climate injustices facing countries of the south. The US, like other imperial powers, must acknowledge its outsized role in the climate crisis as a first step to initiating an agenda for climate reparations.

Further Reading