Nelson Institute Dean co-authors paper that warns of "green sacrifice zones,” calls for non-colonial climate action

January 11, 2021

Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Dean, Paul Robbins, and senior research fellow at Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, Spain), Christos Zografos, are co-authors of the recently released paper, “Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions.” Published in the Cell Press journal, One Earth, the paper evaluates how Green New Deal proposals, which seek to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also progressing social and economic equity, are at risk of becoming agents of colonialism.

Throughout the paper, Robbins and Zografos address concerns of “climate colonialism,” in which green policies result in colonial practices such as exploitation of poor countries and dismissal of Indigenous knowledge. By citing specific risks of climate colonialism, the authors emphasize the importance of inviting non-Eurocentric knowledge to shape climate action.

In particular, the paper addresses risks of “green sacrifice zones” (GSZ), in which certain populations are disproportionately burdened by the costs of decarbonizing the economy. Robbins and Zografos argue that GSZs involve two components: First, GSZs are formed when private industries shift the costs of setting up and running the infrastructure necessary for low-carbon transitions onto third parties and local communities. Then, GSZs are reinforced when colonial logic that favors cultural values of whiteness are used to justify the process.

In order to prevent the proliferation of GNZs, Robbins said that a new approach is needed — one that prioritizes local community needs, values local knowledge, and elevates marginalized voices.

“Colonial habits die hard. If we do not approach the climate challenge with eyes wide open about our colonial resource histories, the U.S. and other elite actors are practically guaranteed to leverage benefits off the backs of others,” said Robbins. “To avoid this outcome, we need to start from local priorities, needs, and visions for the land. This doesn't mean we can't work to develop the infrastructure to stop catastrophic climate change, but it does mean we have to do it a whole new way, attendant to colonized voices.”

Likewise, Zografos emphasized the importance of listening to Indigenous and marginalized voices, stating that in order for a non-colonial Green New Deal (GND) to be formed, attention to three crucial issues — land dispossession, cost-shifting, and leadership — is essential.

“Avoiding colonial GNDs is primarily about avoiding forceful land dispossession of Indigenous and other marginalised social groups,” said Zografos. “And by forceful, I don’t only mean physically violent, but also institutionally violent such as through eminent domain land-takings in the name of a ‘greater good,’ in this case climate action.”

To demonstrate this point, Zografos underscored the importance of avoiding a “Keystone XL pipeline type of situation,” in which development on tribal lands is progressed and Indigenous voices are suppressed, but “this time in the name of achieving a low-carbon transition.”

Zografos also said that avoiding cost-shifting, in which adverse health and livelihood effects are passed onto Indigenous and marginalized groups, is essential to securing an equitable GND.

This issue hits close to home for Zografos. He said in western Spain, in one of the country’s poorest regions (Extremadura), a lithium mining project that is being promoted in the context of the European Green Deal could endanger the quality of life of the region’s second largest city, Caceres. Furthermore, all around rural Spain, small farm owners who deny leasing their land for renewable energy infrastructure are at heightened risk of having their land taken by eminent domain.  

But to avoid these inequitable outcomes, Zografos said that leadership from within Indigenous and marginalized communities is vital.

“Including indigenous and marginalised groups is not enough for ensuring a non-colonial GND. What needs to be done is to realize the capacity of those groups for designing and leading such projects,” said Zografos. “As Native American scholars Larry Gross and Kyle Whyte explain, Native Americans have seen the end of their worlds and have survived it, so their knowledge and experience certainly must take central stage in the project of confronting the existential threat and fear posed by climate change.”

Zografos and Robbins conclude their paper by outlining specific ways that environmental research can help inform truly equitable climate policies. Recommendations are made in areas including land use, economics, politics, and alternatives to coloniality. But Robbins said the work is still ongoing, and that in order to build a non-colonial GND, studying colonial histories and engaging in more environmental scholarship is essential.

“To get it right we need to know a lot more,” said Robbins. “I can see room here for data science, human rights legal research, forest ecology, geosciences, restoration ecology, political ecology, and so much more. We need places like the Nelson Institute to be studying these systems so we can move swiftly and fairly, on climate change.”