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Climate and Colonialism

Lower-income countries are enduring unprecedented climate disasters exacerbating and multiplying pre-existing threats associated with poverty, conflict, and inequality. Droughts in the Horn of Africa have caused a hunger crisis doubling child marriages and leaving around 20.2 million children to face the threat of severe hunger, threat, and disease. Pakistan is still reeling from the intense floodings that killed more than 500 children last year, with an estimated 1.5 million children still in need of lifesaving nutrition intervention in flood-affected areas.

To truly understand and tackle the climate emergency, governments, advocates, academics, and the private sector need to understand the climate and inequality crisis not simply as a technical issue, but one rooted in histories of skewed power relations. The inequalities produced and aggravated by the climate crisis today have ‘longer and connected histories once colonialism is properly acknowledged as a continuous factor’. European colonial expansion devastated Indigenous communities and environments with the introduction of exploitation, extraction of natural resources, violence, and slavery. ‘Understanding climate change in the context of colonial histories implies more’, and goes further, than addressing loss and damage, climate debt and solutions as singularly responding to carbon. This understanding is needed today – securing intergenerational justice demands it – it's what children are calling for, and what they have a right to.

‘We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.’ – 14-year-old boy, India.


The concept of “climate debt” refers to the fact that richer economies historically have been ‘responsible for the vast majority of global emissions and ecological devastation’, and therefore, have a responsibility to support less affluent, climate-vulnerable nations to deal with the worst impacts of a climate emergency that they are least responsible for. Twenty-three of the world’s more affluent countries are responsible for half of all historical CO2 emissions, compared to the more than 150 countries that are responsible for the remaining half. In the last 150 years, countries in the global North have been responsible for 92% of excess emissions, with the US and the EU making up 69%. The value of the concept of climate debt lies in its call to higher-income countries to contribute their fair share in reducing emissions and supporting lower-income countries to minimise, avert and address the impacts of climate change.

The IPCC’s Working Group II report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, represents a recent narrative shift in its explicit reference to ‘colonialism’ as a historic and current driver of the climate crisis; this is the first mention of the role of colonialism in the 30 years since the first IPCC report. A recent, seminal report by the Runnymede Trust and Greenpeace has helped to further understanding of the links between the climate emergency and systemic racism. Save the Children also explored this issue in our recent Generation Hope report. To shape this report, we consulted with over 50,000 children across the world about their experiences of the interconnected issues of climate change and inequality. A number of these children raised issues of climate debt, with some explicitly referring to its connections with colonialism and resource extraction by the global North.

“For some of us that do history in school, when they were coming in it was to find greener pastures. They colonised us for a reason: we are full of minerals; diamonds and gold. You go to Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia. These are some of the reasons they colonised us” - boy in Sierra Leone


Recognition of the power imbalances at play in the climate and inequality crisis also extends to understanding how the marginalisation and exclusion of Black and Brown voices in academia, science, and climate negotiation spaces is symptomatic of skewed power relationships globally. In the Reuters Hot List that ranked the 1,000 ‘most influential’ climate scientists, only five were African. Close to 30,000 climate studies look at areas in North America compared to 10,000 in Africa. In addition, ‘only 22% of authors from the Top 100 most-cited climate science papers over 2016-20… [were] female’. There is a danger in developing climate policies backed by ‘knowledge production… geared towards the vested interests of the global north’, excluding well-informed policymakers and academics from the global South. There needs to be a decolonisation of the ‘dominant knowledge systems for understanding climate change.’

The marginalisation of Black and Brown voices can, too, manifest itself more violently. In 2021 alone, 200 climate activists were killed while protecting their homes and rights, and, where sectors could be identified, over a quarter of these attacks were reportedly linked to resource exploitation. Indigenous Peoples with close relationships to the environment are often and continuously marginalised through political underrepresentation and met with violence when protesting the destruction of their lands. These exclusionary processes, and the active repression of indigenous communities, strengthens the multiple barriers that lead to their social, political, and economic exclusions - barriers that mean indigenous peoples are three times more likely to be in extreme poverty compared to their non-indigenous counterparts. Children within these communities are often most exposed to the impacts of the climate and inequality crisis but the least heard. The experiences, perspectives, and the voices of all children, especially those most affected by the climate emergency should shape solutions to address it.

‘As a child, I can say that children have no role in climate change, but children are the most vulnerable’ – 17-year-old boy, Bangladesh.


Many lower-income and climate-vulnerable countries cannot afford to invest sufficiently in climate mitigation and adaptation. The economic legacies of colonialism shaped the economies of colonised nations around export commodities to maintain the industrial growth of Europe, trapping these nations in an exploitative global economic system. The only option for the global South was to borrow.

Lower-income countries have been estimated to spend five times more on debt repayments than on investments to protect their citizens from the climate crisis. Debt interest payment have now overtaken education spending in Uganda, with Bangladesh expected to follow this trend this year and South Africa in the following year. In the first 11-months of 2022, 80% of Nigeria‘s revenue was spent on debt repayments. Now, vulnerability to the climate crisis is adding to the cost of borrowing.

Some positive steps are being taken, for example the UK has promised a two-year debt suspension clause in loans to vulnerable countries in the case of an extreme climate event, but such solutions are incommensurate with the scale of the problem.  

“Adults should make decisions so things happen and change quickly – hard decisions so things change now.” – a child from the UK

Lower and middle-income countries cannot adequately respond to the climate crisis if the majority of their GDP is spent on debt repayment. Deeper reforms to the global system for governing sovereign debt, such as the implementation of an independent sovereign debt workout mechanism at the UN, are needed to ensure that countries have the fiscal space they need to invest in protecting children from the impacts of the climate emergency and in building greener, more inclusive economies.

“This world still looks too much like it did when it was part of an imperialistic empire. The global north borrows between interest rates of between 1 to 4%. The global south at 14%. And then we wonder why the just energy partnerships are not working,” – Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Mottley


Vulnerability to loss and damage across lower-income countries has also been amplified by a colonial history of resource extraction and exploitation that has significantly limited their ability to deal and adapt to climate disasters. Loss and damage refers to ‘the negative impacts of climate change that occur despite, or in the absence of, mitigation and adaptation’; this could be economic and noneconomic. A recent Oxfam report states that estimated costs of loss and damage by 2030 ranges from $290 billion to $580 billon; costs that will disproportionately affect the climate-vulnerable countries of the global South.

Although a fund to provide finance for addressing loss and damage was agreed to at COP27, many higher-income nations have been resistant to the establishment of this fund, the logistics behind who pays and how much has been postponed until COP28. Moreover, many of the pledges to address loss and damage and fill broader climate finance gaps at COP27 were not new, but rather recycled from existing climate commitments. Failure to make and meet climate financing commitments has, understandably, contributed to mistrust amongst lower-income nations on how willing higher-income nations are to move beyond rhetoric to tackle a crisis that necessitates cooperation and solidarity. Loss and damage means securing children’s rights; higher-income countries will continue to be a barrier to securing this if they refuse to recognise the power imbalances that has led to the current climate and inequality crisis, and if they refuse to invest in children.

‘Countries that have grown rich because of colonialism have a responsibility now, because they made their fortune by making other countries poor.’ – 15-year-old boy, Norway.


The links between the climate emergency and historical power imbalances rooted in colonialism and racism have very real consequences for children. 774 million children, many of which populate formerly-colonised, lower-income countries, currently live in poverty, and face high climate risk. The climate and inequality crisis demands that we recognise its relationship to global power imbalances rooted in histories of colonialism and racism. This year’s discussions around the loss and damage fund are an opportunity for the global North to step up in solidarity, to contribute their fair share and prioritise children’s rights, to consider and address the ongoing harms of colonialism and to include the voices of communities who have been made invisible in research, policy, and decision-making.

“We need financial, psychological, and social support from large institutions or the government, and we ask them to make field visits to see and listen to children. In this context, a special committee can be established where children can go and express their opinions and needs, and place a donation fund to cover the damage that has affected some families and children” – 18-year-old girl, Oman.

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