Climate Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century

Jayati Ghosh, Shouvik Chakraborty and Debamanyu Das

Imperialism can be defined broadly as the struggle of large, monopolistic capital over economic territory, actively aided and assisted by states. However, imperialism cannot be comprehensively addressed simply on a nation-by-nation basis but requires the recognition of the existence of an imperialist world system dominated by a hegemonic power. This was broadly the approach developed by V. I. Lenin more than a century ago. Though it has not changed in essence, it has morphed significantly in form, structure, and reliance on particular legal and institutional architectures. The economic territory is the subject of contestation and control, and it can take many forms: land; resources extracted from nature; labor (both paid and unpaid); markets; newly commodified services that were formerly seen to be more in the domain of public provision, ranging from electricity to education tosecurity; newly created forms of property such as knowledge or intellectual property; even cyberspace.

Among the many new forms of economic territory that have proliferated in the neoliberal globalising phase of capitalism, those associated with direct human environmental interaction with the planet remain in many ways the most crucial and the most strongly associated also with coercion, conflict, and war. The nineteenth century saw many such conflicts in the colonial expansion to other lands, in the attempt to establish control over physical territory with its attendant advantages. Wars in the late twentieth century were closely related to control over energy sources like oil. The twenty-first century may see growing water wars. Increasingly, the change resulting from anthropogenic rifts in the Earth System metabolism has come to define a sphere of struggle over influence, control, and appropriation that is now a major aspect of contemporary imperialism.

This particular feature of global capitalism today and its association with not just capitalism but with imperialism is becoming more and more evident in: (1) how core countries and elites are able to produce and consume based on an imperialist mode of living, generating increasing global carbon emissions with rising ecological footprints; (2) the deceptive and debilitating ways that climate change is addressed in international negotiations; (3) the operations of global finance that increase carbon emissions while failing to make available the required finance for effective mitigation strategies; (4) the privatised knowledge monopolies that prevent most of humanity from being able to access critical technologies required to confront the climate challenge; and (5) the changing technological requirements for both mitigation and adaptation, which give rise to further natural resource grabs aimed particularly at strategic minerals, along with new forms of extractivist competition among the leading powers.

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