Climate Change: a post-development and post-colonial exploration

My interest in climate justice has been constant through my four years at College of the Atlantic (COA). During my second, third and fourth years I was part of the COA delegations that attended the UN climate negations. In addition, I did my internship at the National University of Mexico in the Political and Social Sciences Faculty where I did research on different ways to promote renewable energy from a public policy perspective.

While attending these spaces, I realized that many of the so-called “climate solutions” assumed particular economic and political goals. It was easy to identify a strong developmental agenda engrained in the climate projects discussed, proposed, and financed at the UN space. With this in mind, for my undergraduate thesis (Senior Project) I decided to explore the UNFCCC discourse on Climate Solutions through the lenses of post-development and post-colonial theory.


It is important to state clearly that my project did not intend to completely override the idea of development as a compensatory mechanism for historical processes of colonization and oppression. Nor did it intend to negate the inherent relation between climate change and development; it is a fact that countries with a limit access to technology and other resources struggle more when trying to respond to the adverse effects of climate change. What the project did try to do was identify the places where development as a discursive formation, which has permeated climate solutions, perpetuates violent representations and exclusions in its attempt to universalize notions of progress and industrialization. For example, in his 1949 inaugural speech, US-president Truman referred to the “underdeveloped” areas of the world as “handicap and a threat both to themselves and to more prosperous areas.”

Post-development emerged as part of the later post-structuralist moment in the development studies field. Rather than searching for novel ways of doing development, post-development theorists put forward a stark critique that rejects development as a whole. Drawing inspiration from the works of Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault, Mahatma Gandhi, and Karl Polanyi, post-development examines development as a historical process that yields clear negative effects on the people it claims to be helping. Moreover, it pinpoints the different forms of knowledge exclusion that development performs particularly, and paradoxically, excluding the voices and concerns of those who it purports to be helping in the first place. “By acknowledging [the] existence of what has been actively created as ignorant, residual, or underdeveloped, post-development is contributing to the formulation of alternatives” (Agostino 2007, 205).

Post-colonial theory is of critical relevance when evaluating discursive constructions such as the development and climate discourse. Post-colonialism’s attentiveness to the past is useful when trying to understand the long-lasting effects of past traumatic experiences such as colonization, both at the collective and individual level. Post-colonialism is also concerned with unveiling the epistemic violence –that is violent forms of representation– emerging from the colonization process. Both the old-fashion, conquering colonialism and the modern ideological colonialism perform epistemic violence when wedging difference into its knowledge system. Post-colonialism attempts to highlight the missing parts that are concealed and oppressed through these modes of representation. Moreover, it embarks on the difficult task of identifying alternative ways of understanding and interacting with difference. Some post-colonial theorists propose instead a politics of difference that does not subsume and traumatizes difference but welcomes it through a continuous process of self-generation.

I divided the discursive analysis into two parts. The first one looked at three major documents of the UNFCCC: the founding document of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement. I was looking for evidence that the language employed was reflect of an implicit developmental agenda. What I found was that in all three documents the most frequent words were development, technology, science, economy, and finance. For the second part of my analysis, I looked at the projects approved by the Green Climate Fund. I found that 60 out of the 82 projects contained developmental elements; many of them supported in one way or another industrialization, the expansion of the financial sector, and urbanization.

By the end of the project, I reached three conclusions:


  1. First, any sort of monolithic representation, even that one of the climate victims, conveys the idea of “an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires” (Mohanty 1988, 336). Although one might argue that with climate change the shared goal is to prevent or mitigate the negative effects of anthropogenic climate change, there is no agreement as to how this should be done.
  2. Second, the creation of hierarchies according to a pre-determined yardstick for development or industrialization. Because Climate Solutions are mostly posed in terms of technological innovation and infrastructural preparedness, poorer countries (or even regions within a country) are portrayed as “backward” or “unprepared.” This hierarchization results in the poorer countries (or groups) having to abide by the rules imposed on them and always trying to catch up in an uneven playing field.
  3. Third, to strictly follow a technocratic approach that relies on economic growth to stimulate technological innovation greatly constrains the field of action. Not only is technology praised as the savior, but also it is a very particular notion of technology that undermines any type of knowledge that is not based on a Western conception of science


I would like to conclude by saying that while post-development and post-colonial critiques are important and shed light on important processes of exclusion and repression, they complicate multilateral approaches to climate change. Through the last stages of the project, I struggled to find a middle ground between a sickening universalism and a weakening relativism. What follows is a making sense of these theoretical insights without being paralyzed by their complexity. The work doesn’t end here, it just begins.




  1. Agostino, Ana. “Post-development: unveiling clues for a possible future.” In Exploring Post-development: theory and practice, problems and perspectives, edited by Aram Ziai, 197-211. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
  2. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses.” Feminist Review 30 (1988): 61-88.

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