The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The heat wave could force Europeans to rethink flawed, centuries-old ideas

Effectively addressing climate change requires Europeans to abandon ideas that long justified colonialism

Firefighters contain a wildfire that encroached on nearby homes in the Shiregreen area of Sheffield on July 20 in England. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As Britain and France grapple with sweltering temperatures — possibly even record temperatures — for which their countries are ill-equipped, their privileged residents are at a crossroads. Will they respond by installing central air and stronger locks on their doors, pretending that they can secure their futures by walling themselves off from those who work — and sweat — to provide for them? Or could this devastating heat wave prompt a sense of solidarity with those around the world for whom climate change has already made 100-degree-plus temperatures an everyday hazard?

Ever since Western Europeans began to hatch schemes to exploit the Americas, they have used their “temperate” climate to define themselves against those they colonized or enslaved. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, European scientists attributed their society’s successes — intellectual, commercial and military — in part to an even-keeled climate that proved friendly to industry and agriculture as well as conducive to mental labor.

Now, with climate change mocking the very notion of a “temperate” region, might Western Europeans finally give up the myth that there is anything natural about their history of global dominance?

“Temperate” was meant to be a technical term, derived from antiquity and defined in contrast to the “frigid” and “torrid” or “tropical” zones of the earth. But it resisted precise definition. When British colonists began to settle what is now the Canadian Maritimes in the early 1600s, they labeled the region’s climate “temperate” to stake their claim on the territory. It was a maneuver that helped make it seem that the land they had stolen was a natural extension of home. In their stubbornness, they did their best to ignore the stark evidence that the icy winters in Nova Scotia and northern Maine were very little like winters in England.

“Temperate” was also a war cry, a justification for the subjugation of those living in these other realms, according to the argument that it was Western Europe’s duty to bring civilization to populations who were condemned to barbarism by the unpredictable “extremes” of their own climates.

By the late 19th century, the term “tropical” had come to designate entire new fields of scientific research, naming branches of medicine, meteorology and entomology that served Europeans’ efforts to extract resources and labor on an unprecedented scale. And yet “tropical” was as hard to pin down as “temperate.” It applied to deserts and rainforests, swamps and grasslands — areas that had little in common with one another except for the fact that Western Europeans were keen to exploit them yet wary of the surprises they might hold for new arrivals.

The opposition between temperate and tropical climates remained a key justification for colonial regimes into the mid-20th century. Tropical regions were supposedly incapable of civilizing themselves, while temperate regions were assumed to be divinely ordained for European settlement.

These colonial-era theories of climate and governance persisted beyond the formal demise of European empires after World War II. In the 1970s, for instance, a severe drought in the Sahel region of Africa prompted international scientific experts to decry the failure of post-colonial governments to manage their lands properly. This was a direct echo of accusations made by 19th-century French colonial officers to justify their own incursions into the region.

Yet by the mid-1980s, more critically minded scientists determined that drier conditions in the Sahel had been an effect of large-scale climatic shifts — namely, changes in ocean surface temperatures — not of local human actions.

Despite such evidence, the use of climate theories to justify neocolonial interventions has persisted in new forms. The privileged residents of London and Paris today might no longer use the word temperate to explain their advantages over the rest of the world, but this way of thinking has not disappeared. Instead, since 1994, when the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change committed wealthy nations to aiding the most “vulnerable” to adapt to climate change, “vulnerable” has at times become a new spin on “tropical.” When investors discuss the relative climate risks of development projects, they talk about “vulnerable nations” in much the way that colonial powers once talked of “the tropics” — often pointing to the same places on the map.

Just as the 19th-century British historian Henry Buckle claimed that civilization could never develop in the disaster-prone climate of the tropics, so do today’s development experts weigh the likelihood of a return on investment in regions deemed “most vulnerable” to climate change. The metrics they use draw a line between the active members of society who have the capacity to manage risk — assumed to be from Western, industrialized nations — and those who are passively “at risk.”

More basically, talk of climate vulnerability drives a wedge between those applying the metrics and those to whom they are applied. Most vulnerability indexes factor in only economic loss and loss of life, ignoring the value of local and Indigenous cultures and forms of knowledge. What’s more, labeling a population “at risk” or “vulnerable” without offering any historical context suggests that greater vulnerability is an inherent characteristic of that population, although this vulnerability often stems from centuries of exploitation by Europeans.

These indexes also imply that the ultimate goal is invulnerability. But no one is invulnerable. Wealthy nations like the U.K. and France can maintain a fantasy of invulnerability only by exploiting the resources, labor and environments of “vulnerable” nations.

What happens, then, when a heat wave like the one Europeans are experiencing proves that no one is invulnerable to climate change? It’s possible that some will dig in deeper to the delusion of invulnerability, breaking ground on private bunkers or spending public money on fortifications for only the wealthiest neighborhoods.

But this moment could be an opening to a very different politics of climate vulnerability. This direct experience of a hotter earth could inspire new forms of political alliance. Privileged residents of Western Europe might come to see climate change as an event that links their fate to that of “vulnerable” people around the world.

For legal theorist Angela Harris, vulnerability describes not just interdependence among humans but also human interdependence with the natural world. It could therefore produce a politics that reconciles social justice and environmental sustainability, making clear that human well-being is tied to the welfare of other living things. Given that our treaties, scientific theories and funding institutions all depend on comparing populations in terms of their degrees of climate vulnerability, we cannot immediately dispense with this way of thinking. Yet we can use these same scientific tools to make apparent the webs of interdependence — physical, organic and social — that make every one of us both alive and vulnerable.

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