The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first report in 1990. Over 30 years later, the word “colonialism” finally made its way into the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. The panel’s working group two report, which looks at the impacts of climate change on people, listed colonialism not only as a driver of the climate crisis but also as an ongoing issue that is exacerbating communities’ vulnerability to it.
The addition of one word may not seem like a big deal—but don’t be fooled. This is major. The IPCC publishes a summary for policymakers alongside every report. This is the document world leaders look to when they’re in the thick of negotiations at COP, the annual U.N. climate meeting. The summary’s final language is meticulously scrutinized and discussed line by line—and not just by the world’s top scientists, but also by officials representing 195 governments. That means that officials and scientists from around the globe now recognize the significant role colonialism has played in heating up our planet and destroying its many gifts.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re celebrating the climate justice movement that helped make this happen. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. On Monday, the IPCC released its final section in its sixth assessment. The working group three report is focused on mitigation, or how leaders can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And guess what? There’s plenty of time to prevent climate catastrophe if leaders just listen to the science.
“It’s about time.”
That was Adrien Salazar’s reaction when he saw that “colonialism” finally made it into the IPCC report last month. Salazar is the policy director for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, which is made up of over 60 groups advocating for the rights of the most marginalized.
The role of colonialism in creating the climate crisis has been a part of the climate justice movement’s narrative for decades. At COP26 last year, Brazilian Indigenous activist Taily Terena opened the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion with these words: “Colonialism caused climate change. Our rights and traditional knowledge are the solution.”
Now, the world’s top scientists are acknowledging that decolonization must be central to the global response to climate change. This has tremendous potential for how world leaders shape future climate policy. Many advocates are worried about false climate solutions that promise to decrease carbon emissions (and may do so) but risk harming people along the way.
“With this additional language finally being incorporated into the IPCC reports, I hope that we are more equipped to hold colonial states and governments accountable to not perpetuating colonialism as we respond, adapt, and mitigate the climate crisis,” said Jade Begay, the climate justice campaign director for NDN Collective, an Indigenous rights organization.
Many communities on the ground are still living through the remnants of colonialism—and fighting the forms into which it has evolved. We only have to look at the Russian occupation of Ukraine to remember that colonialism is still alive and well. Or to fossil fuel tycoons who desecrate Indigenous lands in chase of profit. Or the U.S. military-industrial complex whose tanks and fighter jets make it among the world’s top carbon polluters.
“Our country [the U.S.] was born out of colonialism and slavery,” Salazar said. “That has been reinforced over generations by policy.”
European colonialism—the act of exploiting land and resources on which others are already dependent—didn’t only devastate the local communities living on the lands settler-colonizers stole. Colonialism also devastated ecosystems.
“What I’d like to see, then, is for countries like the U.S. to create mechanisms where those communities that are negatively impacted have the resources they need to heal their communities.”
“It was not only an economic exercise,” said Tero Mustonen, a lead author of the working group two report who’s the chairperson for Snowchange, a Finnish organization that works closely with Arctic Indigenous peoples. “It was also a massive terraforming exercise.”
The planet still carries the scars of that trauma today—in the form of extinction, deforestation, and pollution. The communities that survived this genocide from Africa to North America have had to mend their own wounds while surviving generations later in a world run by white supremacy and structural racism. A world that barely acknowledges their existence or the historical harms they’ve faced. That must change if we are all to survive climate change. A response that doesn’t take this history into account risks the lives of people who have already lost too much.
“If we want to make sure that there is a livable planet for all, the window for that is tiny,” said Lisa Schipper, an environmental social science research fellow at the University of Oxford who was a coordinating lead author on the IPCC’s working group two report. “If we want to have a livable planet for some, which seems to be what some politicians are thinking, then the window of opportunity might be bigger, but then we’re making a conscious decision to sacrifice people.”
So, how did this happen? Well, thanks to organizers like Salazar—but also thanks to scientists.
In the eight years since the last IPCC assessment report, there has been an explosion in literature drawing links between climate change and colonialism. The IPCC reports compile findings from thousands of papers that already exist. Authors don’t make original conclusions—they put all the pieces together and present a full picture to the public.
Mustonen of Snowchange was one of the authors who crafted the language around colonialism in the working group two report. But he didn’t work alone. In fact, a team came together to create the first technical paper on Indigenous and local knowledge eligible to make it into an IPCC report. The paper, published independently last year, required close collaboration with communities so that the researchers could submit evidence of observed climate impacts within the parameters the IPCC requires.
“There is a mechanism now in place that enables Indigenous and local communities directly to inform the panel, for the first time, of the ways they see history, justice, and climate impacts,” Mustonen said. “That was a game changer.”
And that paper wasn’t the only game changer. The IPCC featured more social scientists, scientists of color, and women scientists than previous reports, too. Involving researchers who deal with more history and society rather than models and data goes a long way.
This time around, the IPCC engaged more Indigenous authors, in particular, explained Sherilee Harper, a lead author on the report who is the Canada research chair in climate change and health at the University of Alberta. Every single chapter in the working group two report covered Indigenous topics. And Indigenous authors were the ones writing many of these sections on traditional knowledge and colonialism.
“That is really important because Indigenous self-determination in climate change assessment processes is really, really critical,” Harper said. “There’s definitely still room for improvement, and it’s just a small step forward—but a critical and important step forward.”
There’s great power in the IPCC pointing to colonialism as a climate cause. Those on the frontlines of climate disaster now have another tool in their pocket, said Ozawa Bineshi Albert, the co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, which brings together climate organizations dedicated to protecting Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Advocates don’t have to waste time educating the U.N. anymore on the issue. Instead, they can focus on pushing world leaders toward the right climate solutions that will build the equity communities so sorely deserve. For instance, conservation goals can be set in partnership with the Indigenous people who live within the ecosystems officials want to protect. Otherwise, efforts can risk further local land dispossession.
“What I’d like to see, then, is for countries like the U.S. to create mechanisms where those communities that are negatively impacted have the resources they need to heal their communities,” said Albert, who is Yuchi and Anishinaabe.
And she wants to be clear: colonialism affects us all, not just her Indigenous people who bore the brunt of it. With this clarity, perhaps climate reparations will finally get its day. The IPCC has certainly helped make a case. Undoing the damage of colonialism will be an uphill struggle, but the IPCC has made the work just a wee bit easier. After all, you can’t build a world you can’t imagine. Including Indigenous voices in the process secures a better world for us all.
Correction, April 4, 2022 11:50 am ET
Ozawa Bineshi Albert's name was previously misspelled. We regret the error.