“Colonizing the Atmosphere”: How Rich, Western Nations Drive the Climate Crisis

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Writing for In These Times, Sarah Lazare lays out how countries in the so-called Global North (the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Japan) are creating a climate crisis that disproportionately harms the Global South. The Global North is responsible for 92 percent of emissions, while the Global South is responsible for only eight percent. In return the Global South pays a heavy price through drought, flood, famine, storms, sea level rise, and mass deaths. This topic is important because the United States is already responsible for 40 percent of excess carbon emissions. Many in the Republican Party still deny climate change is real, or causes by human activity, while the Democratic Party is hesitant to stop fossil fuel production. The results of this kind of political inaction are problematic for the citizens living in the Global South.

Lazare cites Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and author of a study published in the September 2020 issue of The Lancet: Planetary Health. Posing the question “Who got us into this mess?”, Hickel’s study begins from the premises that “the atmosphere is a common resource” and that “all people should have equal access to it within the safe planetary boundary (defined as 350 parts per million atmospheric concentration of CO2).” Hickel calculated the “national fair shares of a safe global carbon budget” and looked at “territorial emissions from 1850 to 1969, and consumption-based emissions from 1970 to 2015.” Using this data, he determined ​“the extent to which each country has overshot or undershot its fair share.” His conclusion seems obvious.

“The results show that the countries of the Global North have ​‘stolen’ a big chunk of the atmospheric fair-shares of poorer countries, and on top of that are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions.” Hickel states that countries in the Global North “have effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons for the sake of their own industrial growth, and for the sake of maintaining their own high levels of energy consumption.” Hickel continues, “we know that the Global South suffers more than 90 percent of the costs of climate breakdown, and 98 percent of the deaths associated with climate breakdown…​so, just like under colonialism, the North is benefitting at the expense of the South.”

Addressing the roles of large countries like China and India in all this, the study notes that despite high outputs, these countries are within their fair shares, though China will soon exceed that level. Regardless, Hickel goes on to argue that the countries that have contributed the most emissions must be cut off the fastest, with European nations and the United States leading the way. He also says this is achievable in a matter of years, not decades, if change happens immediately.

Outside of Lazare’s report for In These Times, there were few other independent outlets that covered this major issue, other than a piece by Hickel himself in Foreign Policy. Overall, the specifics of this issue and the study itself seem to have received no real attention in the corporate press.


Sarah Lazare, “‘Colonizing the Atmosphere’: How Rich, Western Nations Drive the Climate Crisis,” In These Times, September 14, 2020, https://inthesetimes.com/article/climate-change-wealthy-western-nations-global-north-south-fires-west.

Jason Hickel, “The World’s Sustainable Development Goals Aren’t Sustainable,” Foreign Policy, September 30, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/30/the-worlds-sustainable-development-goals-arent-sustainable/.

Student Researcher: Sarah Uysal (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)