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by Fabio Papetti 
Climate change impacts in Pacific Island Nations affect stability and livelihoods of the islanders. Dominant narratives depoliticize their condition and do not provide structural solutions; therefore, we need new concepts to make visible the violence of the system
Pacific Climate Warriors (here on Nukunonu Tokelau) are taking the lead to fight the fossil fuel economy and to show their resilience despite mainstream narratives about them (Photo credit: Litia Maiava / Te Mana. Source: Green Left)

Since at least a decade, the Pacific Islands Nations (PINs) have raised their voices on the impelling issue of climate change. At the recent COP23 2017 in Bonn, they have been calling for a complete shutdown of the fossil fuel economy, considered as the main way to curb the anthropogenic causes of sea level rise (SLR) which is directly affecting the stability and livelihoods of the islanders. However, while PINs struggle for international visibility, mainstream media and policy-makers are addressing climate change in a different way.

The main frame of climate change impacts in PINs tends to fall into apocalyptic scenarios: references to the past myth of Atlantis overwhelm the internet. The emphasis verges on the “hopelessness” of the islanders, who are depicted as been doomed to leave their lands if they want to survive the drastic changes. Mainstream documentaries are for the most part constructing a potential displacement as it is already happening, exacerbating the lived precariousness of the inhabitants of PINs. Moreover, they are power imbalances between PINs and states such as US and Australia, which tend to depict themselves as the “saviors” of a doomed population, reproducing the rhetoric of the “white man’s burden”. To legitimize such view, policy-makers quickly people forced to move by extreme environmental changes with the problematic notion of “climate refugees”.

The victimization of the islanders runs in parallel to the construction of specific narratives that de-politicize the issue entirely. That is to say, there is the tendency to acknowledge the huge impacts that climate change could have on PINs, but the focus has shifted on a “human vs nature” scale, diverting the attention towards imminent effects rather than structural causes. In fact, to reduce the issue of climate change to just CO2 emission and changes in habitats scratches just the surface of the problem and directs all the concerns on an external entity, namely environmental change, conceived as intrinsic of the world and therefore naturalized, providing a perfect scapegoat for the everyday social problems (Swyngedouw 2010).

Rather, in order to go at the roots causes of climate change we have to analyze the sociopolitical and economic dynamics generating global warming. The threats to the Pacific Islands populations are the consequences of centuries of competition, striving for surplus value extraction and profit maximization: in one word, centuries of capitalism. In fact, it is not only the resource (fossil fuel) in itself that increases the earth temperature, but the fact that it has been (over)used by capitalist societies as primary source of energy in order to subdue both nature and humans.

capitalist floods.jpg

Capitalism’s greed coming to a crisis (source: Common Dreams)

To the unearthing of the violence perpetrated by capitalism, we have also to add a temporal dimension that allow us to grasp better such processes. In the book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), Rob Nixon introduces a critical concept for this task: slow violence. This term unveils the more subtle and less spectacular forms of violence on human and non-human life resulting from capitalist accumulation dynamics over long stretches of time. Nixon attempts to put on the same level of visibility the effects of, say, an explosion in a crowded square, and the effects of air pollution, despite their difference in the time scale.  Indeed, it is evident that an explosion, for its immediate effects, is a form of violence. At the same time, capitalist processes pumping CO2 in the atmosphere concur to the creation of a global crisis with harming effects for the different forms of life, exercising less visible but obvious violence.

Nixon provides several accounts of populations affected by such violence. Describing the post-Chernobyl scenario, he explains how such events were spread not only in space; rather, the violence of the explosion perpetuated in time with the aftermath of nuclear fallout radiations. Metaphorically, the fallout of capitalism is made evident by the environmental crisis happening in the contemporary world, which evidences the unsustainability of the processes that are leading towards the annihilation of life and the displacement of people.

Going back to the issues raised (not only) by the PINs, climate change and the SLR can be seen as forms of capitalist violence towards populations which have been silenced and secluded as already doomed, and whose only possibility left is to move before it is too late. Indeed, the threat of being flooded comes directly from the effects of fossil fuel-powered capitalism. It is a form of violence that does not differ from other supposedly more brutal forms, as clearly stated by the former prime minister of Tuvalu who declared: “The threat is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against Tuvalu”.

It is important to keep in mind that violence can have different forms: from the sudden and more visible embodiments, such as an explosion, to more subtle and concealed versions, such as droughts, pollutions or floods. We need to understand how even the environment surrounding us has a political aspect that at first is hidden beneath the “natural” surface, and then it violently reveals itself when already existing inequalities are exacerbated. This is why the notion of climate refugees – configuring a supposedly new wave of forced migrations due to changing climate – has to be completely rejected as it fails to tackle the main causes triggering the movement of people. Indeed, it understates the human influence on the environment and, consequently, the social aspects intertwined with the act of migration itself, levelling the phenomenon in a de-politicized narrative.

Conversely, concepts such as “slow violence” help us in the process of re-politicizing the issue of climate change by adding a human matrix to the impacts of global warming. In fact, it shows us the violence of the uneven impacts of a capitalist system that has been reshaping the natural world as well as the human one for its own purposes, with tremendous consequences for both. A system, as David Harvey stated, accumulates by dispossessing. Slow violence notion showed us that it is not a dispossession happening just once, in a specific moment at a specific time and in a specific space; rather, it is a long term dispossession which occurs over time and in places seemingly unconnected with capitalist practices.

Fabio Papetti is a researcher holding a MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development from SOAS University of London. His main fields of research are migration flows in Europe with focus on Italy and France (Calais), alternative approaches to migration and the relations between migration and environment. He is currently working on the problematic notion of “climate refugee” and other forms of governamentality intertwined with it.