Colonial Invasion & Climate Change* by Claire Angelica

*This text is a collation of ideas and thoughts mostly from different material I’ve come across when doing research for university assignments. I’d like to acknowledge its limitations as it is knowledge found from within the university colonial matrix.

Words Are Wind

We know the government is thinking about climate change, in some way or another. They’re producing climate reviews, Emissions Reduction Funds, carbon trading & offsetting projects, reverse auction schemes, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and more. Lots of words and policy documents that we all know don’t really come from a domestic political will to do anything, but are more about keeping up with the pace of the rest of the world. Or keeping face. I saw a video on Instagram of Morrison at an International Climate summit somewhere, I can’t even remember what it was called. Thank goodness he was muted. The American host was like, “Mr Prime Minister, I’m not sure we’re hearing you here”, as Morrison’s thin pink lips moved tentatively in silence. This basically captures everything about climate change politics in Canberra. It’s empty, violently passive and unreliably stuck together by balding grey hair.

Climate change has got to be one of the most frustrating and depressing spaces in Australian politics right now. It is so dead in denial that looking at what Canberra is doing seems like a big waste of time. But it’s important to see critically how top-down climate and energy policies can construct our understanding and narrative of climate change.

This text is about looking at Canberra’s climate change politics as intimately tied to our settler-colonial history. And also explaining to my friends who get jazzed about carbon offsetting or new speculative technologies solving all our problems, why I’m skeptical.

So far the government’s magic formula for solving climate change has been: Technology + Free  Market Logic = lower emissions = meeting two- degree target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set the two-degree target in the legally binding Paris Agreement. It became an international standard that has prompted emissions budgets as a primary policy tool for climate change mitigation across the globe. Putting a price on emissions is not a bad thing, yet it’s important to note how this frames climate change for us all. Who constructs these definitions and targets? Whose reality do they reflect? In the words of academic Timothy Mitchell ~ how does a two- degree target define the nature of the crisis and promote a particular set of solutions?

In less mainstream conversations, the IPCC has been criticised for constructing the narrative of climate change as singular and universal. The locality of climate and peoples relationships to their local environment are lost in this global image.

The two-degree target is perhaps the future tipping point for some, but for others the consequences of severe environmental degradation is a present reality already. The imagining of climate change within a two-degree temperature bubble, anticipates solving climate change by solving the problem of carbon emissions. It relegates the cultural complexity of environmental degradation, and positions climate change as an problem to be solved by science and technology. Carbon trading schemes and the development of decarbonisation technology (such as bioenergy & carbon capture and storage) are band-aid solutions that do not address the structural reliance on carbon or the political powers that feed off it. We also need to be asking; who gets to own and control these markets & technologies? Who’s interests do they serve?

Carbon Consumption & Democracy

Reading parts of Carbon Democracy by academic Timothy Mitchell really shifted my thinking about the relationship between environmental degradation and carbon consume more energy, to keep doing what we’re doing.

Carbon & Settler-Colonial Logics

If the politics of climate change are interwoven with the politics of energy extraction then for the Australian context, the politics of climate change cannot be separated from the politics of settler-colonialism. It’s a formation of colonial territorial domination characterised by “spatio-temporal” logics of “homemaking”1 . The politics are racist, exploitative and pivots around land and resource extraction. Political scientists have analysed that it’s a, “unique regenerative sovereign charge” that the settlers carry with them that legalises, in colonial law, the territorial invasion 2. Unlike colonial models that centre resource extraction for empire (like Algeria, Congo, Libya etc) settlers are founders of new political societies (think New Zealand, Canada, Australia, US, Israel, South Africa). The central logic that drives settler-colonial societies is an uninhibited access to land, whereby the settlers have come to stay and set about transforming the land in order to do so.


Austrade.gov.au. 2020. Pastoral Leases - Austrade. [online] Available at: <https://

www.austrade.gov.au/ land-tenure/Land-tenure/ pastoral-leases> [Accessed 22 August 2020].

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Barry, A., 2014. Political Machines. Milton Keynes: Lightning Source.

Bauerkemper, J., 2013. Tensing, dancing, hoping: the future past of settler empire. Settler Colonial Studies, 3(3-04), pp.444-450,

Carey, J. and Silverstein, B., 2020. Thinking with and beyond settler colonial studies: new histories after the postcolonial. Postcolonial Studies, 23(1), pp.1-20.

Demeritt, D., 2001. The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91(2), pp. 307-337.

Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963

Hulme, Mike. (2014). Can Science Fix Climate Change? A Case Against Climate Engineering.

Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S., 2013. Sociotechnical Imaginaries and National Energy Policies. Science as Culture, 22(2), pp.189-196

Locker-Biletzki, A 2018. Rethinking Settler Colonialism: A Marxist Critique of Gershon Shafir. Rethinking Marxism,30 (3),pp.441-461.

Mitchell, T., 2009. Carbon democracy. Economy and Society, 38(3), pp.399-432.

Reynolds, Henry, and Jamie Dalziel. 1996. “Aboriginal And Pastoral Leases – Imperial And Colonial Policy 1826 – 1855”. The University Of New South Wales Law Journal 19 (2): 316, 329.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K., 2012. Decolonisation is not a metaphor. Decolonisation: Indigeneity, Education & Soicety, 1(1), pp.1-40.

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Whyte, K., 2017. Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene. English Language Notes, 55(1-2), pp.153-162.

Wolfe, P., 2006. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), pp.387-409.

History of Settler-Colonial Landscaping in Australia

The structural form of carbon extraction has been inherited from our political past (Hulme 2014). In this way, carbon intensive economies cannot be separated from the colonial logics of domination and exploitation. The contemporary legal infrastructure that facilitates access to land for energy extraction and development in Australia can be found in the colonial land tenure system of Pastoral Leases.

1 Settler-colonial theory emerged in Western academia due to the need to articulate different colonial formations that Post-Colonialism could not account for. Unlike colonial formations that are primarily concerned with economic exploitation such as the extraction of natural and human resources (Locker-Biletzki, A., 2018). Settler-colonialism speaks to an ongoing ‘ownership’, access to territory and occupation. The political theory asserts that across all settler-colonial contexts, settlers are importantly not immigrants. Rather they, “become the law, supplanting Indigenous laws and epistemologies” (Bauerkemper, 2013)

2 Australian academics Ben Silverston and Jane Carey argue that the settler-colonial paradigm is plagued by a “narrow citational practice” that centres scholars, such as Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Verancini, and in effect narrows the scope of the field. 13 This is painfully evident in the repetitive use of Wolfe’s assertion that — ‘invasion is a structure not an event’ — which has been considered a “convenient phrase [...] that substitutes a deeper engagement with theories of settler-colonialism, including Wolfe’s own [...] and obscures the extent to which the work being cited owes its existence to the intellectual and activist work of Indigenous theorist” (Carey, J. and Silverstein, B., 2020). Further tension lies in the separateness of settler- colonial theory from Indigenous studies, which points to another problem of how the work of Indigenous scholars and research have been marginalised in Western academia. Other sites of tension include; the rigid settler/ indigenous binary and the way that it overemphasises the European political point of view (Tuck, E and Yang, K.,2012).; Who and where was settler-colonial theory created?

In the 1800s, the British Crown was faced with the challenge of widespread squatting beyond the colonial frontiers, “to which there was no known or assignable limits” (Reynolds & Dalziel 1996). The problem, from an Imperial perspective, was manifold; firstly, the squatters became subjects beyond governing control but more importantly, if they owned the land under ‘freehold title’, the land also became beyond the control of the Crown. Additionally, if the crown did not own the land, she missed out on significant capital revenue (Reynolds & Dalziel 1996). Secondly; there was concern that unrestrained frontier violence would erupt if the squatters were emboldened by permanent “freehold” rights. Political statements from NSW Governer Gipps at the time expressed a desire for, “the mutual protection of all persons occupying or being upon Crown lands [...] to prevent violence upon and by Aborigines in the pastoral districts” (Reynolds & Dalziel 1996)

This led to the development of a unique land tenure that provided legal protection for Indigenous access to the pastoral lands (Wolfe 2006) and transformed squatting into a legal rentier relationship between the settlers and the Imperial authority. Pastoral Leases mediated the uncontrollable behaviour of the squatters and allowed the Imperial power to extend her colonial boundary, which political theorist Patrick Wolfe argues is not, “something separate from or running counter to the colonial state” but rather, “the frontier rabble constitutes its principle means of expansion [...] once the dust is settled, the irregular acts that took place have been regularised”(Wolfe 2006)

Pastoral Leases are a political instrument of the settler-colonial apparatus specific to the unique character of the Australian landscape. Today 44% of the Australian continent is under a Pastoral Lease and it’s the primary pathway for mining companies to access resources and materials for energy extraction (Austrade, 2020). The extractive structure of contemporary fossil fuel industries are 
inherently tied to settler-colonial logics of access and transformation of the land (Whyte 2018).

Settler-colonial politics, in partnership with capitalism, violently disrupts human connection to the environment and commits ecological domination (Whyte 2018). It was the colonial invasion that began centuries ago that rapidly disrupted ecologies, “causing anthropogenic environmental changes” This included; “deforestation, pollution, modification of hydrological cycles, particular types of farming, grazing, transportation, as well as residential, commercial and government infrastructure” (Whyte 2018 p 135). In other words, climate change is intensified carbon-based environmental transformation imposed by colonialism and capitalism (Whyte 2018).

Pastoral Leases are an Australian example of the political and legal pathways settler- colonialism created for fossil fuel extraction. If we want to build new energy possibilities, we need to reconfigure the physical structures of colonialism that are deeply cemented underneath our feet — the grids, pipelines, seashores, suburbs, the pastoral landscapes and cities (Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S. , 2013). We must acknowledge how the politics of the past shape the problems of the present and future. Settler-colonial logics must be included when we try to understand Australia’s relationship with fossil fuel extraction and carbon.


“Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding” (Franz Fanon 1963).

New speculative technologies and pro- market logic (i.e carbon trading schemes and carbon capture), do not address the colonial dimensions of our carbon intensive society, nor do they innovate towards sustainable consumption cultures. Unpacking the political dimensions of Australia’s historical relationship with extracting carbon from the ground reveals how certain values have been extended into contemporary climate policies, in particular, in the way certain energy transition pathways are being pursued. Renewables and carbon capture technologies don’t address our energy consumption or our settler ways of being with the environment.

In spite of the dangerous consequences of exploiting the finite ecology of the planet, the settler-colonial state consciousness has latched onto a top-down narrative of climate change. For the Australian government it’s about international relations, (following the IPCC) and finding a way to reduce carbon emissions without actually addressing our carbon consumption, because of course that would mean addressing our settler culture. The politics of energy development and extraction in Australia are culturally intertwined with settler-colonial logics of exploitation and elimination. The politics of decolonisation therefore, must be centred within our conversations about climate change and the future of our environment.

So far the two-degree target, emissions budgets, carbon trading and technology have been employed as primary modes of political intervention against our self-destructive energy consumption. But they don’t challenge the settler- colonial structure of our carbon-intensive society. They don’t challenge the structural and political form of carbon extraction. Clearly there is a need for Australian climate politics to engage meaningfully with decolonisation. Rather than being acknowledged at the margins of our climate imaginaries, decolonisation must be brought into sharp focus if we are to talk of addressing climate change.

This text was written and researched on the stolen land of the Gadigal and Bidjigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded.

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