The Coloniality of Global Climate Governance

From the Series: Negotiating the Crisis: Critical Perspectives on Climate Governance

Photo by Robert vanWaarden.

December 2018: Along with twenty-two thousand fellow travelers, I arrived in Katowice, Poland to partake in the annual global climate negotiations—formally known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP). The atmosphere of the COP was fast and intense: the constant flow of ideas, capital, and pricy commodities; badges, suits, laptops, and polished shoes adorned the attendees; and the constant attention of media crews and social media posts added to the aggrandizement of “important” climate figures and big-ego environmentalism. Yet, this place, with its own unique COP culture of power and prestige, felt eerily fabricated and impermanent: the people and materiality of the bustling “need to be seen” scene would be all but gone in just two weeks’ time. What remains of the COPs then—what comes to matter—are the contested ideas and discourses that become codified in resulting global climate policies and programs with implications for grounded realities.

Katowice’s COP24 had one clear goal: to deliver the “rulebook.” Three years after the landmark treaty at COP21 in Paris, COP24 was to be the global negotiations in which Parties determined the terms for operationalizing the Paris Agreement. Debates over primary sticking points regarding technical guidance for measuring mitigation, accounting for climate finance, and ensuring transparency and a just transition that safeguarded human rights were to be resolved in the 236-page rulebook. Yet, observing the striking-out of human rights principles from rulebook drafts was a grim irony, as it occurred on the 70th anniversary of the UN adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the shadow of Auschwitz, the largest German Nazi concentration camp, to which COP attendees took daily tours. Despite this palpable history of human rights violations, COP24 produced a Paris Rulebook in which human rights are not once directly addressed except for a brief mention in the Preamble.

While the world’s poor, communities of color, and women are on the frontlines of climate impacts, they will also be the most adversely affected by the omission of human rights from global climate policy. Given the racialized and gendered uneven geography of vulnerability and death that accompanies the Anthropocene (Pulido 2020), the failure to robustly integrate human rights in the Paris Rulebook reflects world leaders’ seeming indifference that “ambitious” climate actions will unevenly infringe upon the humanity of already marginalized peoples. Paradoxically, at this same COP, the facilitative working group (FWG) to the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) went into force. Claimed as an “unprecedented partnership” between countries and Indigenous communities, the advancement of LCIPP was an important victory for Indigenous Peoples, and stood in stark contrast to the people’s struggle for human rights.

November 2020: Two years passed since Katowice and much had already changed both for LCIPP and for the world. The COP26 was postponed and related meetings moved virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after signing into the livestream for LCIPP’s Fourth Facilitative Working Group meeting (FWG4), Youssef Nassef, the UNFCCC Adaptation Director, took the virtual floor and spoke to a small audience of LCIPP members, parties, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies joining-in from around the world. Addressing the eclectic group in grid-cells across the screen, he declared, “[We are] reaching towards a different era, a different paradigm – one where we have enhanced participation with Indigenous Peoples, but not just enhanced participation, but collaboration unlike what we’ve seen before” (December 14, 2020).

While Nassef continued championing a new, just paradigm for climate governance, I wondered to what extent LCIPP ruptured the UN’s historic architecture in which only nation-states—not Indigenous Nations—had participation, legitimacy, and agency in climate governance. Are we really moving towards a new paradigm of climate justice?

It wasn’t until one year later, at another FWG meeting preceding COP 2021 in Glasgow, that I heard an Indigenous response to my question emerge. Standing at microphone 3, Alison, a Māori youth of Aotearoa, made her intervention to the LCIPP members:

“How do I translate this to my aunties and uncles and grandmothers—this very technical and bureaucratic and culturally specific space? How do I bring this work back to my community? We have so many pressing needs […] but where is the Indigenous priority here around mitigation emissions? Where is the Indigenous priority in adaptation? It is fantastic to see the priority on participation, but I am worried. [Participation] is a drain and a detriment on our communities. I find this space intimidating and colonized space.” (October 28, 2021; LCIPP FWG6)

Alison’s critique of the COP as “colonized space” calls attention to another disavowal of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination—the erasure of Indigenous peoples from positions of agency in global climate governance. Despite the novelty of LCIPP, the seven Indigenous FWG members, who represent Indigenous peoples of the world’s seven socio-cultural regions—as mapped according to the UN’s geographic imaginary—are given no voting rights or direct access to participate in climate negotiations. To be clear, a vote and seat at the global climate decision-making table consistently remains the privilege of the victors and benefactors of European colonization. Thinking with Métis scholar, Zoe Todd, colonized spaces are considered here as de facto “white public spaces” in which the discourses and responses to the Anthropocene are being generated and the rules of when and how Indigenous/Black/People of Color are allowed to enter and occupy these spaces reinscribes whiteness and white privilege (Todd 2015).

Although it may be difficult to detect in an assembly of the world’s nations, the coloniality of power (Quijano 2007) continues to be enacted through UN climate governance and racialized geopolitics that naturalize rules affording less political rights to those colonized in the coloniality/modernity equation. Longstanding power-relations along axes of race and ethnicity, gender, and citizenship continue to undermine the Secretariat's vision of a new and more just paradigm of global governance. The people’s struggle for Human Rights and for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UNFCCC unveils the coloniality of global climate governance today.


Pulido, Laura. (2020). “Racism and the Anthropocene.” In Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert S. Emmett, 116–128. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2007. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.Cultural Studies 21: 2–3, 168–178.

Todd, Zoe. 2015. “Indigenizing the Anthropocene.” In Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, 241–254. Open Humanities Press.