What’s ‘Climate Colonialism?’ Typhoon Mawar’s Carnage in Guam Offers Insight

Guam, like other colonial territories, largely relies on disaster aid in the wake of catastrophes. Some scholars say that aid, along with spiraling debt, is a new form of colonialism.

Damage from Typhoon Mawar in Guam. Credit: Joshua DuFrane/FEMA
Damage from Typhoon Mawar in Guam. Credit: Joshua DuFrane/FEMA

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Much of Guam remains without power or running water after Typhoon Mawar lashed the United States’ second-largest territory Wednesday night. The Category 4 storm tore off roofs and mangled trees with fierce wind and rain.

Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero gave the “all clear” Thursday evening, and officials have reported minor injuries but no deaths on the small Pacific island, located a couple thousand miles east of the Philippines. Still, as the storm clouds dissipated, the damage left behind by Mawar, the most powerful storm of the year so far, became clear.

“We are waking up to a rather disturbing scene out there across Guam. We’re looking out our door and what used to be a jungle looks like toothpicks,” Landon Aydlett, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said on a livestream video. “It looks like a scene from the movie ‘Twister,’ with trees just thrashed apart.”

A last-minute weather anomaly Wednesday weakened the typhoon enough to spare the territory’s residents from what could have been a far stronger storm. But beyond Mawar’s destructive power, the storm’s rampage in Guam also highlights the complicated relationship between climate change and the colonial past of Western nations—something some scholars now call “climate colonialism.”

As Eric Roston reports for Bloomberg, Mawar drew attention to the uncomfortable fact that many of the United States’ most strategic assets are in places increasingly threatened by extreme weather events, rising seas and other consequences of climate change. Guam is considered one of the most critical American military installations. Roughly 2,100 miles from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and even closer to Taiwan, the Pacific island territory has essentially allowed the U.S. to defend its national interests on the other side of the planet for decades.

“By virtue of having an American territory in Guam, it gives the United States the ability to operate on home soil, two-thirds across the reaches of the Pacific,” Bruce Jones, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, told Bloomberg.

In fact, the U.S continues to rely on Guam’s strategic global location for national security to this day. The island allows the U.S. to more easily defend its interests in the region, including keeping North Korea’s nuclear program in check and deterring China from invading Taiwan. In January, the Marine Corps opened its first new base in 70 years on the island, part of an agreement to reduce America’s military presence in Okinawa, Japan.

But maintaining military bases that are significantly exposed to climate impacts is becoming increasingly expensive, Roston writes. As an example, he points to the U.S. Gulf Coast and East Coast, regions that scientists say will experience more intense and destructive storms in the coming years, in large part because of climate change. Already, U.S. military bases in that area are suffering massive damage. In 2018, Hurricane Florence caused $3.6 billion in damage to North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, and Hurricane Michael caused about $5 billion in damage to Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base.

It’s an issue that the Rand Corporation thinks the U.S. military needs to take very seriously. The California-based think tank, which has long been known for research on military and national security issues, released a new study on Wednesday that warned that global warming may imperil the U.S. military’s ability to train troops, maintain equipment and facilities and operate effectively both at home and abroad. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Air Force have issued reports with similar warnings in recent years.

While it’s clear how Guam benefits national security and why the U.S. may want to spend more money to bolster their military facilities in the territory, it’s less certain what U.S. control means to the residents of contemporary dominions like Guam, and more specifically, what they should expect as a territory—not a state—in the wake of destructive storms like Mawar.

As the storm continued on its path toward the Philippines on Thursday, drawing energy from the warm Pacific waters and quickly regaining Category 5 strength, Guam residents must now contend with the typhoon’s aftermath. President Biden approved a disaster declaration late Thursday for the island. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has mobilized more than 130 staffers to help with repairs and is sending more than 100 power generators, along with emergency communications equipment.

But the fact that colonial territories like Guam rely so heavily on U.S. disaster aid and humanitarian efforts has become an increasingly contentious topic in recent years. In Puerto Rico, the largest U.S. territory, billions of dollars of federal aid now sits at the center of a major fight over the island’s energy future. While many Puerto Ricans want their government to use that money to quickly transition the island to solar power and decentralized electricity grids, the territory’s massive debt and other factors have greatly hampered any effort to make that clean energy vision a reality.

Other Caribbean islands are similarly experiencing crushing debt, which has hobbled the ability of many island nations to protect themselves against increasingly destructive hurricanes while lenders, mostly from Western countries, profit from the situation. 

That cycle of debt and aid is what researchers and activists refer to most when they talk about so-called “climate colonialism.” It’s the idea that Western nations, which built much of their wealth by colonizing Indigenous lands and enslaving and killing Indigenous people, are responsible for the vast amount of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions now in the atmosphere. Today, those same Western countries are profiting from the damage caused by global warming, which exacerbates debt often leveled at formerly colonized communities.

It’s a conversation that has also taken hold of global climate talks at the United Nations. Just last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged for the first time the link between global warming and colonialism. “Vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change,” the international body wrote in its report, is “driven by patterns of intersecting socioeconomic development” and “historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism.”

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