Is contemporary global decision-making neocolonial? That might seem a bit of a stretch since states in a postcolonial world are ostensibly equal and, therefore, have the same influence in shaping global norms. However, even if formal equality exists on paper, the making of international law is rife with power plays, in which former empires possess more clout to sway the outcome of diplomatic negotiations in their favor. One of the many sites of struggle for meaning in international environmental law is the setting of atmospheric thresholds.
Decision makers have long deployed thresholds as tools in environmental law and governance despite ecologies functioning more often according to continuums. The adoption of the Paris Agreement embodied a crucial site of struggle for crystallizing the ultimate thresholds of global warming politics would accept, resulting in the average global temperature targets of 1.5°C to 2.0°C. Below and within these absolute numbers lies unfathomable violence that encompasses, among others, the displacement of millions from their homes and the brutal disruption of local ecosystems. This piece argues that global climate negotiations embody neocolonialism because the Global North introduced insidious temperature targets, enabling silent yet significant devastation in the Global South at and below the 1.5°C threshold.
The threshold in international climate law
Lawmakers often use thresholds as a form of boundary-marking between lawful and unlawful actions. For example, air and water quality indexes illustrate the power of thresholds through their essential role in legislation and litigation for setting norms that both public and private actors must meet. In climate legislation, a threshold could be a national carbon budget, a legal benchmark that entails potential liabilities and responsibilities if the state surpasses it. Despite its pragmatism, this approach obscures what lies on the lawful side of the threshold, where a spectrum of climate-related harms occurs, like the floods that ravaged Pakistan in 2022. In this context, the Paris Agreement’s thresholds silence any discussion of the linkages between the distribution of historical emissions and disproportionate and dangerous climate impacts already occurring under 1.5°C.
The violent silence of legal and political thresholds
Silent colonial wounds hurt ever more as the planet warms. This allegory depicts how several countries in today’s Global North immiserated a large swath of the Global South under colonial rule for hundreds of years, a chief cause of today’s vulnerability to climate disasters. This vulnerability and the disproportionate exposure to extreme weather events make the Global South prone to climate impacts that multiply with every tenth of a degree of global mean temperature. So far, the planet has warmed ~1.1°C to 1.3°C, and according to the IPCC, this heating has already contributed to hot temperature extremes on land and in the ocean, heavy precipitation events, drought, and fires. This change in the global climate has resulted in acute food and water insecurity and an exponential increase in human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms for millions of communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, small island states, and the Arctic. Yet, there is a deafening silence in the dominant climate governance around the lives dissipating under the lawful threshold of 1.5°C.
This silence also manifests in the massive material enrichment of the Global North through carbon-intensive industrial development, which enabled luxurious living conditions at the expense of overshooting their carbon budget. As the temperature rises between the lawful thresholds, no level of funding will allow the Global South to adapt its way out of the climate emergency. Consequently, the violence of former empires’ historical emissions will narrow the present-day development options of these regions.
The colonial logic of the 1.5°C threshold
Over years of climate negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement’s compromises, small island states and least-developed countries fought hard to include the 1.5°C threshold in the text to establish what for them is unlawful. In this context, two fundamental aspects tie these countries’ colonial past with the present: limited agency and material dispossession. As to the latter, former empires reduced islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific to territories of enslavement and land degradation due to plantation economies, thereby imposing ruinous living conditions, some of which a warmer planet will replicate.
In terms of agency, even though former colonies have regained their sovereignty and self-determination, their involvement is limited to a significant extent when it comes to global climate conferences. Global North actors, like US economist William Nordhaus and the European Council, legitimized the 2.0°C threshold as an authoritative consensus. This move put Global South countries in a difficult position where they are forced to convince their former colonizers to adopt an alternative threshold that would still be devastating. The global climate regime’s response was to adopt a vague obligation in the Paris Agreement that binds state parties to “pursue efforts” to limit the warming to 1.5°C. This provision symbolizes former colonies capitulating to some degree of destruction between today’s ~1.1°C–1.3°C and future 1.5°C and represents a feeble commitment to limit the warming.
Toward decolonial climate justice
To face the climate crisis, undo the legacy of colonial systems, and strike a new emancipatory path, it is crucial to overcome the colonial perception of the world as fragmented, where the economy is separate from politics and nature operates independently of human activity. If this insight is applied to climate activism and litigation to remake paths of emancipation, finding alternative arguments that can hold governments and corporations accountable for today’s damages in a world below the bargained 1.5°C threshold would be indispensable.
The colonial threshold of 1.5°C has served as a political reference point for far too long and must be replaced with alternative science-based benchmarks that focus on stabilizing the climate system. Only with adequate mitigation of emissions will the struggles for just adaptation, historical reparations, fair compensation for losses and damages, and a just energy transition be possible. By recentering the ongoing nature of the climate emergency and its particularly devastating consequences for the Global South, it may be possible to break the violence of the 1.5°C threshold.
ERC STG TransLitigate is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are, however, those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council.