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Concerned about the long-term effects of environmental degradation and climate change, young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg are in the frontline of climate protests currently sweeping the globe. While ...

Fashion and Beauty in the Tower of Babel: how Brazilian companies made sustainability a common language at COP27

Fashion and Beauty in the Tower of Babel: how Brazilian companies made sustainability a common language at COP27

  Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, plagued by sky-high greenhouse gas emissions, mountains of excess clothing manufactured and cast away each year, and the widespread ...

Connecting academic (air) mobility with carbon inequality: Perspectives from a Global South scholar

As citizens of the Global South, now immigrants in the Global North, which narrative of climate action should we uphold: the one that we know is unfair back home, or the one that puts the responsibility of action on us because of where we reside now? Are our Western contemporaries aware of these dilemmas that we face? A Nepali scholar now residing in Norway reflects on these questions.

Growing up in a middle-income household in Nepal, I was part of a population that was allured to all things western. I distinctly recall how the elementary school curriculum entrenched the notion that Nepal could reach the stature of Switzerland someday – that’s how enticing the western notion was. That we could try to be like them was perpetuated as the goal. And thus, I was introduced to the distinct dichotomy of the spheres of we and they.

I pursued my higher studies in climate change and sustainable development, where I first came across the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR) that underscored climate change negotiations over a decade ago. This further deepened the we and they dichotomy for me: that those states which have the highest responsibility in the current levels of greenhouse gas emissions should bear the bigger share in curbing emissions is of course sensible! I have always understood that they equated with the Global North (whose historical emissions are the root of the climate problem) while we meant the Global South (who have historically faced the greater impacts of climate change). And of course, in this phenomenon, I was a part of the we. I had learned that we must adapt (because there is no other choice), and they must curb emissions (because they are responsible for the problem). I have had abundant discussions with teachers and friends alike, about how they are responsible for the climate crisis, and how it is unfair that we have to bear the repercussions of it. These discussions resonate with the current global negotiations as well as social movements which are premised upon climate (in)justice.

About a year ago, I moved to Europe for my PhD and was beyond elated! Omar El Akkad has said on flight patterns: “Westerners don’t tend to think this way, but in the part of the world I’m from, we talk about passports in terms of their power…”, and I couldn’t agree more. My green passport is limiting in every manner and form, at the bottom of the passport tier, and requires me to get a visa to most countries. My global citizenry aspirations are curtailed by the power that my passport lacks. And this new job offered me the opportunity to live the western dream, in terms of work, travel and to some degree, privilege!

A month into my PhD, I began to realize that I was struggling to fit in because the discussions centered around how ‘we’ need to do more, cut down emissions radically because ‘they’ suffer the impacts. This reversal of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in my workplace left me stunned, to say the least, and I began questioning: in my current situation, which ‘we’ do I belong in?

Art by Jacob V Joyce and Rudy Loewe at the Back to Earth exhibition at Serpentine North Gallery London

Many of my colleagues argue for degrowth in order to reduce emissions and live within planetary boundaries, which a growing body of scholarly literature also points to. Degrowth, after all, is not universal and is applied to “specifically high-income countries that need to degrow”. I understand the science behind degrowth but struggle with it, especially when it is voiced that ‘we’ must degrow. This becomes apparent, for example, when we discuss low carbon travel in my workplace. As colleagues of mine suggest that we ought to fly as little as we can, for both work and leisure, and then some colleagues go on to say how they have adopted a low-flight lifestyle, I can’t add anything but a few nods because of course, what they say is true. It is both refreshing and inspiring to work with people who walk the talk about individual climate action. But soon after, the question “how is this fair?” sinks in.

There is no denying that flying jeopardizes the climate, and the less we fly the better. But there is little acknowledgement that flying is linked with stark global carbon inequalities. What my colleagues pay no heed to is that I have not had the same experiences as they have. Studies show that air travel is in fact an economic privilege. While the top 10% of the income quartile consume 75% of all the energy from air-travel, the majority of the global population “are almost or entirely excluded from aviation”.

Most of my colleagues have travelled around the world, not just Europe. Their passports are inherently more powerful than mine – they don’t need a visa to visit Europe, nor for many other parts of the world. When they speak about the trips they took a lifetime ago to another country, or continent for that matter, for work or otherwise, I have no similar experiences to draw on. Back home, flying is the exception whereas here it’s the norm. I have had more opportunities to fly in the past year while working in Norway than throughout my entire life spent in Asia.

What is the basic standard for most of my colleagues is, in fact, a luxury for me. I’m not sure they’re aware of this. My version of we is fundamentally different from theirs. My colleagues and I view the world through our respective colored lenses. At least some part of their higher education has been in the Global North (Europe, the US, Canada or Australia) whereas mine has been grounded in Nepal and Thailand.

When I think rationally, I know, understand, and even agree that my individual choices, regardless of which part of the globe I live in, are mine. I can be a part of the climate crisis (should I choose to hop around Europe in cheap budget airlines for work and/or leisure) or be a part of the solution (plan the same travels by land). But it is difficult to be rational all the time, especially when my experiences, contexts and perspectives are so different, and even more so, when what I think of luxury (being in Europe) are just everyday things for others.

I focus here mostly on flying because my work encourages a low-carbon travel policy, including to avoid flying for work to the largest extent possible. While it is a sensible climate action for an institute, I do think there are nuances that need further unpacking.

Image of the University of Bergen’s Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation (CET) low-carbon travel policy. Source:

Firstly, our travel budget does not allow for a low-carbon travel policy because it is fixed. The more we choose trains and stopovers in different cities, travelling for work, be it a conference, networking events or even courses, becomes more and more expensive. The choice of transport mode is therefore a matter of economic privilege, which most of us unfortunately do not possess.

Secondly, the low-carbon travel policy does not account for the carbon inequality linked with flying. How is it fair that I feel guilty for flying to conferences (which are important for networking as an early career researcher) while there are plenty of more established, senior researchers (including those working on sustainability and/ or climate change) who choose to fly between continents for a 2-day conference, even though they may not need to network any further?  I am aware of my own privilege when I discuss my choice to attend such events in person. More often than not I am reminded about how many such in-person events are inaccessible to a lot of my peers, both financially and geographically. This contributes further to my own guilt, and also to the debate about how (un)sustainable current academic practices really are.

That everyone in the room shares similar beliefs because we work at the same center and are passionate about similar things is not a given. My personal conflicts of treading this ‘we’ and ‘they’ have resulted in numerous venting sessions. Because it is sometimes both frustrating and exhausting to not be able to find another person with similar lived experiences to connect with, in a foreign land.

A friend of mine who is now in the UK advised me that I must simply unlearn things to cope with this reversal. And I can’t help but ask if it is fair that they talk about radical lifestyle transformations, when we have always aspired to look upon their everyday? Or do I feel guilty for having to ask it at all, because I know the science behind it, and need to stop viewing the world through the colored lens of we as equating with the Global South? I have also come to the glaring realisation that these ‘uncomfortable’ talks need to happen more – because they open avenues to thinking in a different manner. And that is a critical first step to instigate action.

I recently flew to two conferences, one in which a session was on making meaningful connections between the Global North and South, and the other focused on energy and climate justice. It was a meeting point for over a hundred young researchers working around the world, trying to solve world problems, one research project at a time. Could such events create ‘safe spaces’ where we can have meaningful conversations about the reversal of we and they, and develop genuine connections between the Global North and Global South? Could such conversations lead to perhaps blurring the dichotomies? Would these broaden perspectives by forcing us to think outside of the box that we’ve been trained to think in?

Reflecting on both these events, I do think that they offered the space and the connections to confront the dichotomies of we and they. I had the chance to discuss with researchers, both early career and established ones, about my dilemma with air travel as an early career researcher. Three important points have come up. Firstly, we need to question who has to reduce air travel – is it up and coming researchers who really need networking opportunities, or established ones who comprise the privileged ones? Secondly, we need to acknowledge the carbon inequality associated with flying and incentivize travel by land. We live in a system that inherently disincentivizes low-carbon travel options, as air travel is heavily subsidized while train travel is not. So, if we, as an academic community preach the shift from air to land travel, it is the community’s responsibility to incentivize the low-carbon options, especially to those from the Global South, to attend such events. Finally, the geography and accessibility to these events matter: they can be organized in places that have good connections by land and in hybrid formats (as were events during the COVID pandemic). This feeds into a larger debate of how (un)sustainable and (un)just current academic practices are- especially in terms of accessibility and inclusion of those from the Global South.

This blog was first published in Undisciplined Environments.

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

About the author:


Subina Shrestha is a PhD Candidate, Centre for climate and energy transformation (CET).

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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.