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Settler colonialism, racial capitalism and climate change

How do settler colonialism and racial capitalism shape how key local, national and international actors respond to challenges of climate change?

Discussions around climate change and its’ implications often disregard the significant role of settler colonialism and racial capitalism in generating unequal impacts that disadvantage marginalized communities. This can be illustrated by viewing how these terms shape the way that local, national and international actors respond to climate change across the world. This blog will explore what each term means and its reciprocal links with climate change, before examining how these concepts influence the way different key players respond to the climate crisis.


Settler colonialism and climate change


The term settler colonialism is widely accredited to Australian scholar Patrick Wolfe who describes it as a structure which is based on the idea of eliminating rather than exploiting a native population (Wolfe, 1999). Wolfe (1999) states that settler colonialists see the erasure of a native population as a precondition for settler colonialism to occur and for them to be able to exploit a land and its resources. “Settler colonialism destroys to replace” (Wolfe, 2006, pp.388); that is, for colonial powers to settle somewhere, they must remove or replace native existences with their ideologies. Whyte (2018) articulates a similar view, arguing that a settler’s aim is to transform an indigenous homeland into their homeland by eliminating or indoctrinating indigenous people into the settler’s values. This can be through genocide (elimination), or through boarding schools, missionaries, or confinement to reservations, limiting their freedoms and restricting their ability to express their full heritage (indoctrination).


Settler colonialism is linked to climate change in several ways. For example, in the US with Native American groups such as the Anishinabewaki, settlers heavily exploited Native land in seeking resources, which has resulted in the draining of wetlands, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of the landscape from oil and gas industries (Whyte, 2018). This relates to climate change by making the region more susceptible to flooding and making the environment and communities less resilient due to the loss of biodiversity. Indigenous groups are seen as the protectors of the natural world due to their close relationship with the environments they live in, as well as their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Therefore, by eliminating or marginalizing these people, their invaluable knowledge, which could be useful in addressing climate change, is lost.


Racial capitalism and climate change


Cedric Robinson is often credited with coining the term racial capitalism. Robinson (2000) argues that racial capitalism is the way that capitalism and capital accumulation thrive due to heavy exploitation of marginalized groups, calling it a symbiotic relationship between capitalism and racism. This is evident throughout history, perhaps most clearly in the enslavement of Africans by Europeans for the Transatlantic slave trade and the wide-reaching spatial and temporal impacts of this.


When examining the link between racial capitalism and climate change it is important to recognize its’ “tendency to destabilize the ecological conditions upon which capitalism and life depend through its demand for infinite expansion on a finite planet” (Gonzalez, 2024, pp.494). This has commonly resulted in a lack of climate resilience for countries in the Global South, which have had their resources over-extracted and have become financially reliant on Global North countries as a result of their vulnerability to natural disasters. Thus, even climate change becomes commodified under racial capitalism, and has allowed for the continuation of colonial-style domination over countries in the Global South. An example of this is how the Bahamas has had to increase its national debt and financial reliance on countries and organizations in the Global North due to the five hurricanes it has been battered by in the last decade (Gonzalez, 2024) – hurricanes which have likely increased in intensity and frequency due to climatic shifts caused by emissions from the Global North (Trenberth, 2007). Under racial capitalism, the environment is viewed only as a commodity, as are the people who inhabit it. This illustrates the intersection of racial capitalism with settler colonialism – both view people and the environment as simply land and labour to be exploited, removed, or owned.


How do these concepts influence how actors at different scales respond to climate change?


The impacts of racial capitalism and settler colonialism on how national actors respond to climate change can be illustrated through a few examples. One of the key components of settler colonialism is land exploitation and restricting the mobility and ownership rights of Indigenous people. This is best seen through the contestation around the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in the US and the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX) in Canada (Jonasson, 2019). In both cases, the proposed pipelines traversed Indigenous land and were enacted without adequate consultation of Indigenous groups such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the US and the Tsleil-Waututh people in Canada. In both cases, the economic benefits of the pipelines were prioritized over the legitimate issues Indigenous groups raised, such as the risk of oil spills and contamination of the environment and water sources. This was not only immoral but illegal, particularly in the case of the TMX where the lack of consultation was illegal under both Canadian law and the UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) (Hoberg, 2018).


Several studies highlight the disproportionate impacts of climate change racialized people face (Whyte, 2018; Gonzalez, 2021), and this goes beyond the national scale. The Global North / Global South divide can be viewed as rooted in colonialism, from historic oppression, over-extraction and systemic under-development of the Global South (Gonzalez, 2021), to modern neo-colonial reliance on Global North countries. Despite the fact that countries in the Global North are responsible for over 50% of CO2 emitted between 1850-2015 (Gonzalez, 2021), marginalized communities face the brunt of the adverse impacts these emissions have caused. International bodies do not reflect past and present injustices these countries and communities face. For example, a key framework on climate change, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), has been criticized for its inadequate consideration of poorer nations due to the dominance of Global North countries in the United Nations as an organization. Legislation that has arisen from the UNFCCC, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, is illustrative of this critique, with opponents highlighting the inadequate loss and damage provisions allocated for countries in the Global South, who are affected more despite contributing less emissions. The policies and attitudes of national governments and supra-national organizations in regards to climate change can therefore can be seen to oftentimes align themselves with the tenets of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, intentionally or otherwise. When policy, law and sentiment consistently fail to consider the intersectionality of climate change and its effects, one must question how value is assigned and to whom.




The question of why Global South countries and their communities are so under-valued and under-represented on the world stage is a persistent one, and one that racial capitalism and settler colonialism, in part, explain. As Gonzales (2021) puts it, “racialization undermines solidarity by portraying large segments of humanity as inferior” and unworthy of protection. As climate change increases the number of people in the Global South who require aid, racial capitalism and settler colonialism aim to exacerbate the divide between North and South, and absolve the North of responsibility for its emissions and subordination of the South (Gonzalez, 2021, pp.133). To discuss climate change without involving those most impacted is to deny their existence in a matter not dissimilar to colonial powers of the past. Considering the multiple historical factors that influence climate policy is necessary to achieve equity in our response to the climate crisis. 


Let’s all LEARN MORE about the history underlying different important concepts in order to fully understand the perspective of marginalized people.

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De Sousa Santos, B. 2007. Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review. 30(1), pp.45-89

Gonzalez, C. 2024. Racial capitalism, climate change, and ecocide. Wisconsin International Law Journal. 41(4), pp.479-519

Gonzalez, C. G. 2021. Racial capitalism, climate justice, and climate displacement. Oñati Socio-Legal Series. 11(1), pp.108-147

Hoberg, G. 2018. Pipelines and the politics of structure: Constitutional conflicts in the Canadian oil sector. Review of Constitutional Studies. 23(1), pp.53-90

Jonasson, M., Spiegel, S., Thomas, S., Yassi, A., Wittman, H., Takaro, T., Afshari, R., Markwick, M., Spiegel, J. 2019. Oil pipelines and food sovereignty: Threat to health equity for indigenous communities. Journal of Public Health Policy. 40, pp.504-517

Robinson, C. 2000. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

Trenberth, K. E. 2007. Warmer oceans, stronger hurricanes. Scientific American. 297(1), pp.44-51

Whyte, K. 2018.  Settler colonialism, ecology, and environmental injustice. Environment and Society: Advances in Research. 9, pp.125-144

Wolfe, P. 1999. Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology. London: Cassell


Wolfe, P. 2006. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocidal Research. 8(4), pp.387-409

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