The ‘green’ new deal should not be a new imperial masterplan

Plans for a ‘green’ post-coronavirus recovery that ignore the Global South cannot tackle the climate crisis.

EU green deal Reuters
EU commissioner for Environment and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevicius delivers a speech on the 'European Green Deal', in Brussels, Belgium May 20, 2020 [John Thys/Reuters]

As countries in the Global North move past the peak of the novel coronavirus pandemic and start to gradually reopen their economies, the talk of a “Green New Deal” and a “green” post-COVID-19 recovery is gaining pace in Western liberal and progressive circles. 

Politicians, experts, commentators and activists from the United States to the United Kingdom and Australia are arguing in unison that their governments should view the pandemic as a wake-up call to improve their relationship with the environment and take constructive steps to tackle climate change. While the recipes they offer for achieving a “green” recovery differ in detail, they appear to share one important feature: a tendency to ignore the global nature of the climate crisis, the nuanced and lived experiences of the Global South and the Global North’s role in creating an unfair system that marginalises the environmental groups, peoples and ideas in the South.

Indeed only a few of the dozens of articles published on the prospects of a post-coronavirus “green” new deal talk of the irreparable harm the actions of rich industrialised countries have caused, and continue to cause, in the Global South. Some mention internationalism only in passing, seemingly to avoid accusations of Trumpian parochialism, while others argue – often as an afterthought – that the positive effects of European and American green new deals would eventually trickle down and be felt in the poor, developing countries that are on the front lines of the climate crisis. None of these articles, meanwhile, suggests the West should take responsibility for its past crimes or argue for climate reparations.

One article on post-coronavirus economic recovery even suggests that US President Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal, a set of policies and programmes he implemented to reinvigorate the US economy after the Great Depression of the 1930s, should be used as a starting point for a modern “green new deal”. The article, however, predictably does not mention Roosevelt’s many imperial crimes and the direct role he played in decimating Haiti’s resources and exposing the island nation to the worst effects of climate change.

While climate change poses a threat to everyone living on this planet, its harmful effects are not distributed evenly among countries and communities. Island nations and low-income countries across the world, from the Maldives and Haiti to Bangladesh and Madagascar, bear the brunt of environmental destruction and man-made and corporate-driven global warming. What do these countries have in common? They are all former colonies or prefectures of major Western powers. 

The climate breakdown we are witnessing today is being felt the hardest in countries where colonisation decimated natural resources, altered infrastructures and compromised traditional ways of living that respect the environment. Colonisation caused record greenhouse emissions, contributed to the heating of oceans (which pave the way for stronger storms) and resulted in unprecedented pollution. Moreover, it led to a loss of indigenous knowledge about environmental protection as well as long-lasting institutional and economic weaknesses that make it harder for formerly colonised nations to combat the deadly consequences of global warming. 

This is why climate change cannot be addressed with green new deals and green recovery plans that do not acknowledge the colonial roots of the ongoing crisis. This is why the international community needs to have a serious discussion about climate reparations.

As the Global North continues its efforts to contain COVID-19 and restart economies decimated by coronavirus lockdowns, the Global South is not only trying to withstand this unprecedented public health crisis with significantly less resources, but is also gearing up for new climate catastrophes. 

The full economic consequences of the coronavirus for the Global South are not yet fully realised. Many of the countries most prone to the effects of climate change, however, are already heading into recession because they cannot export their goods or welcome tourists due to the pandemic. 

Moreover, the Atlantic hurricane season is officially here. This year, scientists predict that there will be up to 19 named storms. They also forecast that 6-10 storms could become hurricanes (bearing winds that reach 120km/h or higher). According to recent research, the increasing severity of tropical hurricane seasons is directly linked to climate change. This is more than many climate change-prone, low-income nations can realistically bare. The loss of power and destruction to the infrastructures these storms can cause could potentially worsen hygiene conditions, make social distancing practically impossible and contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in affected countries. 

The Global North is responsible for the deadly two-pronged crisis many countries in the Global South are currently facing. Green new deals and green recovery plans cannot work until former imperial powers take responsibility for their past crimes and pay retributions to the nations they exposed to the worst effects of climate change.

This is why, despite their seemingly “global” ambitions, the proposals for “green” new deals coming from Europe and the US do not excite many in the Global South. As a new and more vicious hurricane season starts with the Caribbean islands in its direct range, and India and Bangladesh count their losses after being struck with yet another deadly cyclone, people on the actual front line of climate change are finding it hard to be enthusiastic about proposals that solely focus on developed nations and completely ignore their plight.

A new imperial master plan that offers no compensation or hope to the countries that are experiencing the worst immediate and long-term effects of climate change cannot resolve the unprecedented crisis the world is facing today. The only way for a better, healthier and more prosperous future for all is through a truly global climate stabilisation and resilience plan that includes reparations to former colonies that are struggling to withstand a crisis that they played little role in creating.

If environmentalists and policymakers in the West fail to see this, millions in the Global South will continue to lose their lives and livelihoods to climate change and the world will lose precious time in responding to the economic, social and environmental devastation looming on the horizon. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.