Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in response to Hamas’ October assault on Jewish civilians is prompting much soul-searching. One reappraisal that caught my eye was Who’s a ‘Colonizer’? How an Old Word Became a New Weapon, which ran earlier this month in The New York Times.
The piece, by veteran NY Times correspondent Roger Cohen, centers on two opposing ideas — clashes, if you will. One, particular to the current war, concerns the charge that Israel is an outpost of “settler colonialism” and the counterclaim that the Jewish state, “far from being colonialist,” in Cohen’s words, “is a diverse nation largely formed by a gathering-in of the persecuted.” The other is what Cohen calls “a fundamental reframing” of history away from an East-West conflict canonized in the American and French revolutions, toward a North-South struggle “focused on the millions of lives lost to the slave trade and the genocide of the native American peoples.”
Cohen’s grappling with colonialism and colonization took me back to 2018 and the image shown at left. Outside a “Climate Action Summit” convened in San Francisco by Jerry Brown toward the end of his fourth and final term as governor of California, activists from the Climate Justice Alliance hoisted a banner proclaiming “Carbon Pricing Is Colonialism.”
To me, the message was shocking but not surprising.
Shocking, in equating carbon pricing — an admittedly technocratic but singularly powerful policy tool for cutting carbon emissions and, thus, aiding vulnerable nations and communities considered most gravely threatened by climate chaos — with the centuries-long colonial project that subjugated and plundered the Global South to benefit the colonizing North, and whose psychological and financial toll endures.
Unsurprising, in light of the climate-justice movement’s embrace of intersectionality, and with it, conflation of carbon pricing with predatory capitalism that, over centuries, bestowed riches on Europeans and North Americans by stealing the lands of Indigenous people, the labor of people of African descent, and the mineral resources of the entire Global South.
What Is Colonialism?
Wikipedia usefully defines colonialism as “a practice by which one group of people, social construct, or nation state controls, directs, or imposes taxes or tribute on other people or areas, often by establishing colonies, generally for strategic and economic advancement of the colonizing group or construct.”
Notwithstanding Wiki’s disclaimer in the same paragraph that there’s “no clear definition” of colonialism, this one is distinct and, with its reference to taxes, pertinent.
How Carbon Taxing Actually Works
Suppose carbon emissions were taxed in every country. Would that entail colonizing of poor nations by the rich? It could, but only if the carbon-tax wealth — the revenue generated by the tax on carbon emissions — was siphoned off by the rich countries.
There is no carbon-taxing or pricing system under which that would take place.
Keep in mind that carbon taxing is a charge on carbon emissions. If Country A exports fossil fuels to Country B, the carbon tax arises when the fuels are burned, which takes place in Country B. The tax is imposed in and collected by Country B, and the revenues adhere to Country B.
What about Country A? Its carbon tax applies to fuels burned there — to power vehicles, to generate electricity, to run factories, to heat buildings, and, yes, to operate the machinery that extracts the fossil fuels from the ground and brings them to docks for export. Each of those combustion processes generates carbon emissions in Country A which will be taxed by Country A and whose revenues will stay in Country A.
There are genuine debates to be had as to how Country A, the exporter, will spend its revenues, just as there are or should be debates in Country B concerning disposition of its carbon revenues. Nevertheless, under no conceivable carbon-pricing regime will revenues from Country A’s carbon tax flow to Country B.
Where in this picture is colonialism?
Is it in the prospect that taxes on carbon emissions in Country B and other importing countries will cut demand for Country A’s fuel exports . . . which will lower demand for Country A’s fuels and depress its commerce in extracting and exporting fossil fuels? No. This lowering of demand is part of the intent of taxing carbon — “a feature, not a bug,” per the expression.
Shrinking global demand for carbon fuels and thereby reducing Country A’s carbon commerce isn’t colonialism. It’s not a coercive transfer of wealth or imposition of tribute. Rather, it’s part of how the world cuts emissions and protects the climate, accomplished entirely by and under the control of Country A.
The Colonial Adjacency of Carbon Offsets
Carbon offsets are accounting devices to enable “polluters,” who may be countries, companies or individuals such as air travelers, to avoid having to reduce their own emissions, by purchasing offsets or “carbon credits” that ostensibly cut emissions elsewhere, e.g., by planting trees or destroying greenhouse chemicals like Freon. Plagued from the start by the rap that they are little more than get-out-of-jail-free cards for the Global North, and further undercut by repeated evidence of fraud, carbon offsets have not only hindered effective climate action but have also ended up sullying the cause of carbon pricing.
The Carbon Tax Center’s website section on carbon offsets recounts their history and controversy. Suffice it to say that offsets’ ties to various carbon cap-and-trade programs such as the European Union’s Emissions Trading System and California’s AB-32 carbon cap-and-trade program have led climate-justice campaigners to condemn not just offsets or carbon cap-and-trade but any proposed or actual form of carbon pricing — even straight-up carbon taxing with no offsets whatsoever.
What the Colonial Powers Owe Their Former Colonies
Let’s be clear that the developed countries owe an immense debt to the Global South for exhausting most of our planet’s carbon budget: trillions for climate adaptation; massive financing for clean-energy infrastructure; and large-scale technology transfer. Sweeping debt forgiveness would help as well. These obligations are, or should be, compulsory. But they have nothing to do with carbon pricing. They certainly won’t be exacerbated by taxing carbon emissions whether in the Global South or North. Rather, the emission reductions that carbon pricing will spark will buy extra time for former colonies to manage, adjust and thrive as the payments, financing and technology ramp up.
Carbon Pricing is Anti-Colonial
We conclude this with its headline. Carbon pricing is utterly and intrinsically anti-colonial. Nations levy their own carbon price and collect the revenues, which they allocate or invest as they see fit.
It’s not perfect. No policy is. And it’s not a silver bullet. When it comes to protecting and restoring climate, there’s no such thing.
But carbon taxing promises huge reductions in carbon emissions — 30 percent or better within ten years if ramped up steadily, in the case of the United States. And it’s complementary with virtually every other carbon-cutting action, be it regulatory, investment, or even clean-energy subsidization, to go far beyond that 30 percent mark. Moreover, pathways abound for allocating, or, our favorite approach, dividending the revenues to keep whole the vast majority of the most-vulnerable households
Carbon pricing is a policy path any nation can undertake on its own and manage as it chooses. If that’s not the essence of political autonomy, what is?
Environmental justice misgivings about carbon pricing, and antidotes to same, are discussed at length on our Carbon Pricing and Environmental Justice page.