Something that has always bothered me about climate action by large corporations, institutions, and global leaders is that it seems to focus on encouraging individual action by the common people: we’ve added more bins for you to throw your garbage in, we’ve banned plastic straws, we’ve told you to bring your own reusable water bottle. 

Don’t get me wrong, reducing waste and consumption this way is important, and we should all do our part to support this. However, this encouragement comes with a complete lack of acknowledgement of the systemic conditions perpetuated by global powers that created the climate crisis in the first place. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change particularly pointed to the link between colonialism and climate change in its Summary for Policymakers from 2022, saying that regions that are highly vulnerability to climate hazards are those that have development constraints that are “influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”

The most current example of this connection is Israel’s bombardment of Gaza that began on October 7, part of a much longer history of violence that a United Nations expert has described as illegal occupation and “indistinguishable from a settler-colonial situation.” As Israel’s assault enters its seventh month, I find it more important than ever to acknowledge that colonial endeavours and the climate crisis are inextricably linked. 

Stats from Gaza

In January, researcher Benjamin Neimark and colleagues from the Queen Mary University of London published a research paper titled, “A Multitemporal Snapshot of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Israel-Gaza Conflict.” The paper, called a “first-of-its-kind analysis” by The Guardian, outlines the long-term consequences of military operations on the climate, using carbon emissions from Israel’s latest invasion of Gaza as a starting point for addressing the gaps in this area of climate research. 

The paper presents some staggering statistics: it found that projected emissions from only the first 60 days since October 7 totalled 281,315 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and were greater than the annual emissions of 20 individual countries. The majority of these emissions, 280,602 tonnes, were from bombs and artillery, cargo flights, and tanks and vehicles deployed by the Israeli Defence Forces and were equivalent to burning at least 150,000 tonnes of coal. These numbers point to the devastating effects colonial military operations have on the environment. 

Israel’s history of colonial climate damage 

According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2010 Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and Programme of Action for the Palestinian Authority, “​​So pervasive are the effects of the Israeli occupation on the climate vulnerability of Palestinian communities that the occupation — in and of itself — is considered here a ‘risk.’”

The creation of the state of Israel has resulted in the fragmentation of internationally recognized Palestinian territory, which consists of the Gaza Strip bordering the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank along the Jordan River, and thus split governance of Palestine. Palestinian governments lack substantial decision-making power over land use, making it nearly impossible for them to create policies that address the climate crisis. Furthermore, Israel’s control over water supply, agricultural land, and expansion of settlements force Palestinians to adopt unsustainable practices such as using raw sewage for irrigation and drilling wells for survival. 

Additionally, Neimark and his colleagues’ paper outlines the emissions resulting from occupation infrastructure. Israel’s Iron Wall, a barrier completed in 2021 to control the movement of goods and people across the Israel-Gaza border, consists of a 20-foot high metal fence, concrete barriers, razor wire, and surveillance technology such as cameras and sensors. They estimated the total carbon emissions traceable to the wall’s construction to be 274,232 tonnes.

Long-term costs

Colonial endeavours don’t just have immediate impacts on climate, but also carry long-term repercussions because of the conditions they create. 

According to satellite images analyzed by the UN, at least 35 per cent of Gaza’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed by Israel’s latest assault. Neimark and colleagues’ research calculated that total carbon emissions for reconstructing these buildings will be about 30 million tonnes, which is equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of New Zealand. 

Israel’s bombing of Gaza has also destroyed solar panels that are a major energy source, and will make future clean energy efforts difficult. Furthermore, Israel’s complete blockade of fuel led to the shutdown of all wastewater treatment plants in October, resulting in 130,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage being released into the Mediterranean Sea every day. Needless to say, the costs of Israel’s assault on Gaza will contribute to the climate crisis for years to come.

What do we need to do?

U of T, an institution that has committed itself to divesting from fossil fuels, must also commit to divesting from Israeli occupation without separating it from the climate crisis as a solely ‘political’ issue. As activists from the climate movement Fridays for Future Sweden said, “We have always been political, because we have always been a movement for justice… Advocating for climate justice fundamentally comes from a place of caring about people and their human rights.” 

We cannot talk about the climate crisis without discussing the colonial violence that has created it. As a glaring example of this violence occurs before our eyes, it’s time we start holding colonial powers accountable for their significant contributions to the climate crisis, rather than continuously placing the onus of climate action on individuals. 

Urooba Shaikh is a third-year student at UTSC studying molecular biology, immunology, and disease, public law, and psychology. She is a Climate Crisis columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.