African communities already feeling the pinch of global warming received a sharp reminder of the severity of their precarious predicament, when Pope Francis used his historic visit to Kenya as a platform highlighting the ‘catastrophic perils’ already inflicted by climate change on the continent.
The Pope’s been preaching the gospel taking on climate change for some time now but hearing it again on the eve of the world’s biggest climate change conference, COP 21 held in Paris, France, hammered home the dire reality faced by many Africans – that their lives and livelihoods would suffer greatly if we don’t urgently find ways to adapt to a warming planet.
Though the world’s climate has been steadily growing more erratic for decades, the effects of that change have been neither gradual nor easy to adapt to, especially not for the developing world. Extreme heatwaves, droughts, famines, wildfires, radical flooding… These extreme events have been occurring with more frequency and intensity and severely hampering development in countries that depend on environmental stability to survive.
Just look at Africa; communities here have always been incredibly vulnerable to effects of climate change. With the lion’s share of sub-Saharan Africa’s food coming from rain-fed agriculture, the hotter temperatures mean that the vital water resources, which are required for food security, evaporate rapidly. Droughts are increasing in regularity and intensity. Famines, which historically occurred every ten to fifteen years, are now becoming an almost annual occurrence.
Scientists say the successive seasons of incredibly low rainfall and persistent drought conditions since then have definitely been triggered by global warming.
To be clear, I’m not saying every extreme weather event can be blamed on climate change – climate and weather are two different things, after all – but the increase in both the severity and frequency of extreme weather events is a definitive indicator.
In 2011, Ethiopia experienced its worst drought and famine in 60 years, leading to the mass displacement and deaths of thousands, including many young women and children. Though the drought itself wasn’t necessarily down to climate change, scientists say the successive seasons of incredibly low rainfall and persistent drought conditions since then have definitely been triggered by global warming. Now the entire region is facing the dire implications of this long-term shift.
While the horn of Africa isn’t alone in facing these condition – even in the US, droughts and wildfires have been eroding away farmland and drying up water supplies – for Africa the lack of infrastructure and development means communities lack the ability to insulate themselves to bear out such change. When droughts turn arable farmland into deserts and rivers into dust-bowls, communities, which have often lived in that region for generations, have to pick up their lives and migrate elsewhere to survive… and their options aren’t always that much better elsewhere.
And so we turn to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UNFCCC, which runs COP 21 with the hope that developed countries (whose industrial progress has historically been the biggest contributor to climate change) will voluntarily curb their carbon emissions and put the brakes on warming temperatures and, more importantly, contribute much-needed funds to the developing world so communities can mitigate the effects of climate change by building resistance strategies.
It’s one seriously big ask reckoning on the better nature of developed nations to provide the necessary green funds.
Many African countries, like Zimbabwe, feel that the developed world owes developing nations restitution for past offences and hinges its climate adaptation plans on that obligation… but here is where one of the biggest problems rears its head. Developed nations like the US, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, don’t have to do anything at all. Despite the fact that many world leaders will attend COP21 this year, and frequently talk about the dire need for action on climate change, any recourse they take or funds they make available is a mostly voluntary exercise.
It’s one seriously big ask reckoning on the better nature of developed nations to provide the necessary green funds to mitigate the already apparent ravages of global warming across communities on the continent. Many countries have chosen to rise to the challenge regardless, like Germany, but too many others simply can’t be moved to cough up the millions (or even billions) of dollars for African countries when politicians feel their obligatory pennies should first be spent domestically.
And so Africa finds itself in a precarious position: communities need funds to build resilience and develop strategies that will help them endure the ravages of a drastically changing climate. But to receive those funds, they often need to demonstrate an already dire need… in which case it’s mostly too late to build that resilience at all as communities are already displaced and struggling to survive.
The people of Ethiopia are already staring down the barrel of this reality. The Green Climate Fund, which administers capital for climate change projects in developing countries, has only just assigned US$50 million to the county’s ambitious mitigation project, their five-year growth and transformation plan, which aims to battle the effects of climate change by developing new green technologies while also achieving a carbon neutral status by 2025.
That’s a long way to stretch US$50 million especially given the impact of the drought and famine and obvious need to first ensure the survival of its population, eighty-five per cent of which are farmers, whose livelihoods are intricately tied to the lack of rainfall and rising temperatures.
And then there’s the critical problem of politics and priorities within African nations themselves. When the chips are down, Africa’s developmental needs – from growing GDP to securing constant affordable energy – tend to always hold the higher hand, regardless of the climate change threats. Chief among the priorities is the need to secure an uninterrupted energy supply necessary to grow economies on the continent.
In line with a progressive climate change policy, this would mean developing green technologies and renewable energy sources (like solar, wind and biomass) that are sustainable and support resilient communities and cities, right? Unfortunately, most African countries are instead opting for the quick-and-dirty coal-fired power plant fix… which is both unsustainable and bad news in the long run. Yet, national priorities in the short-term continuously seem to supersede long-term climate change strategies. It thus makes it hard to convince developing nations they need to lend a hand when Africa often does not follow its own good advice.
There are plenty of innovative and brilliant works being driven by communities across Africa already.
Not all communities are waiting for a white knight to ride in and save them, though; there are plenty of innovative and brilliant works being driven by communities across Africa already, working with business and foundations to solve climate change challenges cleverly. But unfortunately, the long-term success of these projects seems tenuous if they cannot find a way to integrate with nation strategy or be scaled to communities across the continent (or even the world).
For the next few weeks, the world’s focus will be on Paris and the climate change talks, the emphasis on finding broad-based global solutions by signing agreements and memorandums of understanding. But then, after that, perhaps, Africa needs to take a more seriously look the coherence of its local strategies and policies and find ways to work together as a continent instead of fractured parts of a whole.