The Politics of African Climate Change

Among the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change, Africa has been tackling the crisis for longer than most. Beginning in 1992, many African nations signed on to UN resolutions designated to combat climate change. These resolutions, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the 1994 desertification protocol, made concerted efforts to address the dangers of climate change on an international level. As almost 70% of the continent’s economy comes from agriculture, African governments had a strong incentive to participate in and tackle the crisis. However, this top-down method of handling climate change has been more difficult than anticipated.

Due to the colonial power structures left in place post-independence, much of African infrastructure has been poorly suited to adapt to the needs of modern day Africa. In an interview with climate scientist Ogunlade Davidson, the Africa Renewal magazine reported that, “’Africa never enjoyed the financial benefits generated by putting greenhouse gases up there in the first place,’ he continued, ‘so it never accumulated the wealth to be able to bear the shocks.’”[i] As a result of colonial resource extraction, many African nations have been forced to rely on international aid and support to further the initiatives needed to address climate change on their home turf.

This aid, however, comes with a caveat. Studies on climate change done by international and security agencies often posit Africa as the continent most susceptible to violence and conflict, and thus the continent most in need of intervention. This idea, understood best as neocolonialism, runs the risk of African countries falling prey to privatization.

Using examples of violence in the continent’s past, such as Darfur in Sudan, these watchdog groups cite climate-based reasons as causes for the conflict. Part of this, as explained by a research report out of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, comes from the securitization of research into Africa: “there is an active search for a connection between climate change and African conflict… between (poor) African land stewardship and desertification. Second, African case studies have tended to focus on a limited set of accessible regions… creating conditions for overstating positive linkages while failing to explain peaceful outcomes.”[ii] Using specific examples of violence as justification for limited urbanization and migration, these groups essentially place blanket statements over African climate security. Without intervention to prevent urbanization and migration, violence is seen as the only possible outcome.

However, this mindset has only harmed intra-national economies and politics in Africa. While climate related crises do pose larger issues to the continent, urbanization and migration could actually have positive impacts on the African intra-national economy. With a stronger urban workforce and citizens working jobs in transit, a new age of dynamic culture and economy seems to be on the way for Africa. A watchful eye will be necessary, however, as the fluctuating populations and needs of migrating citizens directly caused by climate crises could change the needs and supplies of medical resources as well as food and water in urban centers.

         Not all hope is lost, however. In 2019, the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) merged with the African Union Development Agency (AUDA) to create AUDA-NEPAD, a continental political effort designed to address continental poverty, environmental degradation, and resource mobilization from the bottom up. According to the chief executive of AUDA-NEPAD, Ibrahim Mayaki, “The best way to solve the energy problem is to have decentralized energy services at the local community level, managed by local communities…You can have the big strategy, but in terms of implementation, in terms of innovation, it must come from the bottom.”[iii] Dr. Mayaki’s premise has major implications for the future of Africa’s treatment of climate change. Rather than relying on international aid and support, as it has in decades past, and run the aforementioned risk of neocolonialist exploitation, this homegrown political move creates a community of accountability and support for African nations across the continent. In creating this web of rural and urban communities that can be self-sustaining  by relying on each other and their surrounding communities, the public health pressures that some African officials worry about can be lessened.

         Some nations such as Morocco, South Africa, and Nigeria have already made moves towards cleaner energy and job stability across their respective regions of Africa. With developments in solar energy and mini-grid electricity—a type of power generation that is often relegated towards individual efforts of towns and small cities—the bottom up vision of AUDA-NEPAD can be fully realized in a way that incentivizes collaboration. These projects are ambitious, fully bypassing an age of industrialization akin to that in Western nations, but are projected to pay dividends in later years. Morocco’s newest solar energy facility is set to achieve part of the country’s clean energy promise as well as employ and train hundreds of women previously constrained to the household.[iv] While many state-run utilities have fallen slightly behind private industry for renewable energy, strong collaboration with private industries have provided a model that the developed and developing world would do best to follow.

         Climate change is one of the most daunting challenges of the modern era and has impacted the African continent greatly over the past 30 years. With forecasted climate crises estimated to hit large swaths of agriculture-centric nations, the threat to livelihood and the global food supply is imminent. Yet, the concerted political efforts by African nations across the continent have created a net of programs and initiatives to support urban growth, rural accountability and a system of communication that could greatly increase the African GDP in decades to come. This political effort is crucial to understanding the impact of climate change in the continent and as time progresses, Africa’s development and goals will serve as examples on how to lead and handle an international crisis.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.