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Whose climate security? Or why we should worry about security language in climate action

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On the Racist Humanism of Climate Action

Mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation policies are imbued with neocolonial discursive constructions of the “other”. Understanding how such constructions work has important implications for how we think about emancipatory and socially-just responses to the climate crisis.

In her 2016 “Edward Said Lecture”, Naomi Klein made the case that “othering” is intimately linked to the production of the climate crisis. Borrowing from Said’s Orientalism, Klein defines othering as the “disregarding, essentialising, [and] denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”. She argues that this is much needed for justifying the sacrifice zones necessary for fossil fuel exploitation, and for refusing to protect climate refugees.

In these ways, othering permits letting off the hook the neoliberal and neocolonial structures of domination that are largely responsible for climate injustice.

Constructing people as not-fully-human, not part of “us”, or as threats—internal enemies, foreign agents, terrorists, obstacles to development, and the like—is a common strategy for legitimising repression against those who resist extractivism and dispossession. Indeed, compartmentalising populations into those who need protection and support, and those who can be sacrificed for the sake of the “greater good”, is what theorists from Michel Foucault to Achille Mbembe saw as the fundamental function of racism, originating in European colonialism. Similarly, Frantz Fanon defined racism as a global hierarchy based on the “line of the human”, which created a distinction between the zone of being (the human) and the zone of not being (the sub- or non-human).

At the same time, the workings and reach of othering go beyond what Naomi Klein suggests. Discursive constructions of populations or territories as “other” are also mobilised to include them within the reach of government action and control. This is typically the case with populations or territories that are constructed as “in need of improving” that, as anthropologist Tania Murray Li has shown, have long underpinned colonial and development interventions. These constructions are no less racist and colonial than those justifying the “need to sacrifice”, yet they are intermeshed with a humanitarian or humanist “will to improve” the other, a reactivation of the imperial discourse of the “white man’s burden”.

Image 1. Mural dedicated to Edward Said, Palestine, 2016. Unknown author. Source. Wikimedia Commons

Climate Action and Othering

We claim that this ambivalent mobilisation of othering—oscillating between improvement and sacrifice—also characterises mainstream responses to the climate crisis, imbuing them with a neo-colonial and, at heart, racist ethos. Policies for mitigating climatic changes, adapting to them, or governing climate-induced migration, require prior discursive work to frame targeted populations or territories as problematic or deficient, through narratives that stress vulnerability, underdevelopment, and victimhood. At the same time, these interventions are associated with effects of dispossession, environmental destruction and the production of surplus populations and sacrifice zones, and must therefore rely on othering to justify letting such populations die.

Mitigation and green extractivism

Think of climate change mitigation, and its purported goal of shifting away from fossil fuels by aggressively expanding industrial-scale renewable energies and electric automobility. Environmental movements and researchers have demonstrated abundantly that this strategy is problematic. They denounced the dispossession effects of “transition mineral” extraction and large hydropower projects, and the “land grabbing” associated with wind and solar energy generation and biofuel plantations. Such industrial-scale solutions follow a “green extractivist” logic that aims to appropriate as much resources, energy and profits as fast as possible from a territory, irrespective of the social and ecological impacts. As such, they produce dispossession and sacrifice outcomes similar to those of fossil fuel extraction (and don’t fare a lot better in terms of CO2 emissions, as Alexander Dunlap has shown).

Compared to the old, “grey” extractivism of dirty coal and oil, such projects are cast as necessary not only for the improvement of otherwise “underdeveloped” territories and peoples, but also for saving the planet from catastrophic climate change—as research by activist and writer Daniel Voskoboynik demonstrates in the case of lithium. The more urgent and necessary the improvement, the more acceptable the sacrifice, and the more “selfish and irrational” the resistance.

Adaptation and vulnerability

Climate change adaptation is another case in point. While emanating from ostensibly disinterested concerns with the adverse effects of climatic changes upon “vulnerable” groups, it draws upon and reinforces images of the other as both in danger and potentially dangerous. This manifests itself in adaptation policy documents—for instance, by the EU—which construct Africa as a climatic “heart of darkness” of unruly environments, failed institutions, and backwards populations, ready to flood European borders with unwanted migrants.

This type of representations depoliticise vulnerability. They separate it from colonial histories and previous rounds of capitalist dispossession and neoliberal restructuring that created or exacerbated people’s “lack of adaptive capacities” in the first place; and obfuscate the historical responsibility of colonial states and capitalists in the global North for generating the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, adaptation interventions seek to make “target” populations responsible for managing the adverse effects of climatic changes, receiving limited assistance (in the form of debt and corporate investments) conditional on their willingness to go along with a pre-packaged plan.

The “improvement” of populations and territories targeted by adaptation programmes has no room for redressing development-induced dispossession; rather, it is expected to work through the dispossession itself. As Markus Taylor shows in the case of adaptation policies in Mongolia and South Asia, urbanization and proletarianization of rural populations, which result in poverty, indebtedness and loss of access to their means of production and livelihood, are framed by the institutions like the World Bank precisely as a way of reducing small farmers’ vulnerability to climate change, while also freeing up rural space for more mechanised and capital-intensive agriculture.

Climate-Induced Migration

Discursive constructions of the climate migrant exemplify how the two forms of othering (to “sacrifice” and to “improve”) are deployed in overlapping and contradictory ways. A common way in which othering operates in this context involves the separation between “good” and “bad” migrants. For instance, Andrew Telford has shown how EU and US policy reports on climate-induced migration often represent Muslim and African migrant populations as threats, as racialised others with a potential for radicalization and terrorism.

At the opposite end of the “migrant-as-threat” trope stands the image of climate migrants as victims, which is apparently benign but nonetheless problematic. Victimisation involves representing those vulnerable to the effects of climatic change as powerless and resource-less. This disempowers communities by obscuring the adaptation strategies they already practice. At the same time, it bolsters neo-colonial imaginaries of a silenced other with no agency who, driven by desperation, “easily becomes the unpredictable, wild ‘other’ that threatens ‘us’”—in the words of geographer Kate Manzo.

Image 2. Global Climate Strike in Melbourne, Australia. September 2019. Credit: John Englart. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Othering and the Adaptation of Capital

Despite their stated aim to mitigate and adapt to disastrous climatic changes, mainstream climate policies are explicitly envisioned as avenues for furthering capital accumulation.

This is obvious in the case of industrial-scale renewables, dominated by transnational energy corporations seeking to expand their markets and diversify their production. But it also applies to the increasingly privatised and financialised business of adaptation, presented as creating opportunities for profit-making and rent extraction. For instance, a report released in September 2019 by the Global Commission on Adaptation—a private-public partnership led by the UN, World Bank and Gates Foundation—calculated that “investing $1.8 trillion globally” in climate change adaption until 2030 “could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits”.

What’s more, climate policies are motivated by a geostrategic concern with security. This points to a continuation of the post-WWII “development project”, which was motivated by the threat that newly decolonised populations might turn to communism or Third World anti-imperialism. While the political coordinates have changed, “climate-related development” functions to a large extent as a way of containing the “excess freedom” of surplus populations: stopping them from becoming unruly, or migrating to rich countries (in larger numbers than capital needs).

Taken together, the current choreography of policies and interventions that make up the “climate action” framework can be seen as a way to preserve global capitalist class power in the face of the ongoing climate catastrophe. Othering in this sense is central to the “post-political” governmentality of climate change, a key tenet of which is, for Erik Swyngedouw, “the perceived inevitability of capitalism and a market economy as the basic organizational structure of the social and economic order, for which there is no alternative.”


A central implication of all this is that plans for radical socio-ecological transformation—including Just Transition or Green New Deal frameworks—should not reproduce a colonial logic whereby peripheries (primarily) in the global South are treated as pools for resource grabbing and carbon dumping, or as sites for salvation-type interventions that dismiss frontline community action and priorities. As climate justice activists advocate, there can be no decarbonisation without decolonization.

Challenging the neocolonial and neoliberal government of climate change entails affirming the ability of the subaltern to “speak”: recognising and reasserting the “pluriversality” of “non-Western” socio-environmental knowledges and praxes should be foundational to climate justice. We must be mindful, however, that—as the Aymara theorist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has argued—there is more to decolonization than discursive emancipation.

Recognising ontological multiplicity must go hand in hand with the critique of material power asymmetries and global unequal (ecological) relations. Decolonizing means, primarily, giving back the land to indigenous communities and reasserting the sovereignty of formerly colonized peoples, including access to and control over natural resources and other means of production and reproduction—as part of globally connected struggles attacking the material and ideological bases of racial-patriarchal capitalism and imperialism.

This blog was originally published in Undisciplined Environments, and is based on a longer, open access article published in the journal Political Geography. The article first appeared on Bliss on 13 October 2021.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

Diego Andreucci is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Juan de la Cierva Social and Political Sciences Department at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.



Christos Zografos is a Ramón y Cajal Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

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Urban heatwaves and senior citizens: Frugal solutions in The Hague

As The Netherlands is currently suffering from extreme heat, it is worth reminding ourselves of the effects of the latest heatwave, which took place from 10-16 August, 2020. Worryingly, the excess mortality was 37% higher among people receiving long-term care than the average in the previous weeks. Especially senior citizens (people aged 65 and above) are vulnerable to the negative health effects of heatwaves. They often do not feel thirsty, and accordingly, they do not drink enough. Due to their reduced mobility, they have difficulties in moving to cooler places such as parks. They also cannot afford to buy air conditioners or sunscreens. Hence, as we, Erwin van Tuijl, Sylvia I. Bergh, and Ashley Richard Longman, argue in this blog, there is a need for frugal solutions to protect seniors against heat. Frugal solutions are both affordable as well as “simple” . We present some frugal solutions we identified in a recent research project in The Hague, The Netherlands. We also discuss challenges that hinder development and usage of these frugal solutions.

Affordable solutions

1. Canopy © by ZONZ

The respondents in our survey ranked sunscreens and air conditioning highly as their preferred options to keep cool, but the purchase and operating costs are significant barriers. Although not many research participants knew about them, we found affordable alternatives. Instead of air conditioning, wet towels in combination with fans are an effective measure to keep cool, just like applying wet sponges or using a (foot)bath. Pragmatic alternatives for sunscreens are bed sheets to create shade, whereas sun sails/canopies (see picture 1), balcony awnings and window foils (picture 2) are more durable alternatives.

2. Window foil © by De Kock Raamfolie

These solutions can be obtained from specialised (online) suppliers, as well as from (low-cost) retailers. Another example is a clamp awning (picture 3), a sun protection device for balconies and terraces that is fastened between the floor and a roof or protrusion, also available at low-cost retailers. These affordable solutions are installed without drilling or other construction measures. The products are therefore a good alternative for sunscreens that are often prohibited by landlords or housing corporations due to aesthetical reasons (i.e., sunscreens may decrease the aesthetical value of buildings) or technical limitations (i.e., some locations might be too windy for sunscreens). Moreover, sun sails and clamp awnings can be taken away quickly when there is no sun, or when seniors move to another house. In this way, seniors do not invest in buildings, but in a product that they can take with them.

3. Clamp awning © by ZONZ

The need for simple solutions

Beyond affordable, solutions need to be simple in terms of easy to use and easy to access. However, not all solutions are easy to use. For example, digital apps and other “smart” solutions, such as a “smart beaker” – a cup with sensors and an app that warns when seniors need to drink – are regarded as too complex for seniors who for the most part still have limited digital skills in comparison to younger generations. And due to the limited mobility of seniors, (non-digital) solutions must be easy to use and to access. For instance, we found that for seniors with health problems (e.g., diseases like Multiple Sclerosis) it is difficult to take a cooling vest on and off without assistance.  Furthermore, cooling vests might be difficult to obtain for seniors as they are only available online or in shops targeted to business customers. Simple alternatives are wet towels and cooling scarfs (that have a cooling effect for four to five hours) (picture 4). Both alternatives are easy to obtain and can be put on and taken off relatively easily.

4. Cobber Cool Shawl © Cobber by Vuursteker

A solution that is put in place in The Hague as well as other cities around the world are so-called cooling centres. These are dedicated cooled rooms (i.e., with air conditioning) in (semi)public buildings, such as schools, or libraries. However, will senior citizens really use such spaces? Even if transport was arranged for them, some of our respondents argued that seniors may prefer to stay at home during a heatwave due their limited mobility, and that they are at an increased risk of dehydration if they would undertake the trip to the cooling centre. Seniors now sometimes “flee” their hot apartments and sit in the hallways, leading to noise and other nuisances. Some of our respondents proposed turning their existing common rooms into a cooling centre instead by equipping it with an air conditioning unit.


Challenges ahead

So, while we identified a number of frugal solutions, both in the market and developed by the senior citizens themselves, we also observed demand and supply gaps. Especially smaller entrepreneurs we interviewed struggled to identify their “real” customer – should they talk to homeowners, tenants or representatives of individual retirement home and housing corporations, or rather with those working at the “headquarters” of retirement home chains or housing corporations? Indeed, the same type of organisation might have different ownership and organisational structures. For example, retirement homes can be owned by dedicated elderly care organisations, housing corporations or by real estate investors, and they can be managed in a decentralised way (e.g., per building) or centrally (from a headquarters).


Another issue is that heat health risks are still underestimated by most people in The Netherlands, partly due to the irregular occurrences of heatwaves and their usually short duration. This makes it hard for entrepreneurs to market their products, especially those products that are relatively new on the Dutch market, such as sun sails, cooling scarfs or clamp awnings. And when heatwaves strike, there is a sudden increase in demand, which entrepreneurs have limited capacity to respond to. Therefore, procurement officers in organisations such as senior housing agencies or elderly care centres would be well advised to view heat preparedness as a strategic priority rather than a short term and reactive solution, and prepare for heatwaves in advance. Public agencies could also create more opportunities for entrepreneurs and the “demand side”, i.e., users or those acting on behalf of users, to meet. Likewise, agencies should not only warn seniors and (informal) caregivers about the risks of heatwaves, but also inform them about frugal solutions that can be used to keep cool. Such actions could literally save lives.

Related links:

The project report can be downloaded by clicking here.

More information on the research project is available on the ISSICFI, as well as THUAS websites.

More information in Dutch is available on the Kennisportaal Klimaatadaptie.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:


Erwin van Tuijl, Postdoctoral Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and at the International Centre for Frugal Innovation (ICFI), and visiting researcher and lecturer at the Division of Geography and Tourism, KU Leuven (Belgium).





Sylvia I. Bergh, Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher, Centre of Expertise on Global Governance, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).




Ashley Richard Longman, Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Political Science and Public Administration, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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