Africa Deserves Compensation for Climate Change Damages

The Paris Climate meeting which is underway through December 11th 2015, could be an opportunity to redress climate related injustice perpetrated against Africa and the poor world. The scientific consensus is that climate warming trends are due to human activities and, according to the Africa Development Fund (AFDB), Africa - more than any other part of the world - is taking the brunt of the impact.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) shares this grim assessment. The health and well-being of Africa is under threat, its people, its ecosystems, and its unique, rich biodiversity. Stunted child growth, malaria, deforestation, food price increases and droughts are just some of the impacts. The majority of African farmers are dependent on rain-fed agriculture and rangeland, which are subject to the vagaries of climate.

The Paris Challenge

A challenge facing the Paris meeting is that there has never been any successful international environmental agreement with so many actors involved. The Montreal Protocol reached in 1989 to combat ozone depletion, is often mentioned as a successful model of such an agreement, but there was much less at stake for the global South economically than in current conversations about climate. CFCs which caused ozone depletion primarily were of concern to the industrialized world, while reducing CO2 emissions seriously impacts the poorest countries trying to develop.

Controversies between developed and developing countries have slowed the reduction of greenhouse gases. The Montreal protocol was politically easier, cheaper and less complex to deal with. The science was undisputed. The threat of skin cancer alarmed the public in powerful countries and motivated quick action by the United States, Canada and Europe. In contrast giving up fossil fuels is facing tremendous resistance, because it indicts an entire way of life in the West, one dominated by privilege and unsustainable consumption. In Montreal, CFCs which caused ozone depletion were interchangeable with alternative technology, while fossil fuels are pervasive and phasing them out requires fundamental changes in the way we live.

A New York Times editorial asks "What the Paris Climate Meeting Must Do" Among its suggestions are:

  1. Rich nations must help poorer ones achieve their targets.
  2. Stop the destruction of tropical forests, which play a huge role in storing carbon and absorbing emissions.
  3. Enlist investors, corporations, states and cities in the cause.

Similar suggestions were made in Copenhagen in 2009, Kyoto in 1997, and Rio in 1992 with little to show for all the posturing and declarations. Will Paris be different? In this piece, I choose to focus on some impacts of climate change on Africa and possible wish list for solutions.

How Rich Nations Can Help Poorer Ones The same NY Times editorial recommends that Paris can "by fostering collective responsibility ...play a part in finding a global solution to a global problem." However, the collective responsibility approach of solving the problem is unfair because countries haven't shared equally in creating the problem with the richest 10% emitting over 50%. According to author Naomi Klein, the global South stresses the primary responsibility of the global north for the climate crisis, "about 75 to 80 percent of the damages caused by global warming "will be suffered by developing countries, although they only contribute about one-third of greenhouse gases." An immediate danger to Africa as I write is the El Nino effect causing drought and crop failure threatening food security and endangering coastal cities in poor countries. The late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, wrote an article just before the Copenhagen meeting, which appeared in the Guardian, arguing that Climate Change Will hit Africa Hardest. It was a compelling piece which advocated compensation for Africa. He wrote: "One conservative estimate - which has a reasonable chance of being accepted precisely because it is conservative - calls for $50bn per year as of 2015, increasing to $100bn by 2020 and beyond. A transitional financing arrangement would be put in place for the period 2010-2015." Sadly, when the moment of truth arrived, the late PM did not stand his ground, perhaps out of a calculation that his goal for compensation for Africa was unattainable.

Meles Zenawi alongside Britain's PM Gordon Brown was selected to co-head a new post-Copenhagen UN panel, which aimed to raise US$100bn over the next decade to help developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change. According to Naomi Klein, Zenawi "unveiled a plan that [included] the dreaded 2C [temperature] increase and [offered] developing countries just $10bn a year to help pay for everything climate related, from sea walls to malaria treatment to fighting deforestation."

The AFDB estimates that Africa needs $20 to $30 billion over the next decade to cope and adapt. Also, according to Dr. James Hansen, the pioneer who raised the threat of global warming in Congress, accepting the 2C increase will not prevent the possibility of dangerous climate change. Vulnerable countries are urging for a 1.5C goal. But Zenawi as head negotiator for Africa acquiesced to the bigwigs.

Stopping the Destruction of Tropical Forests and Species Extinction

Forests play a vital role in stabilizing the climate by serving as a carbon sink. The World's second largest rainforest after Amazon is in the Congo basin and it is losing 34 times the size of Manhattan every year. If protected, the forests of the Congo basin can play a vital role for the world in slowing climate change. Demand for timber from China, which has banned commercial logging within its borders, but is the destination for illegal logging from Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea and the DRC is accelerating deforestation. The "Sudd in southern Sudan which is the largest freshwater wetland in the Nile basin and the largest flood plains in Africa is also endangered." UNESCO's suggestion to preserve the SUDD as a biosphere reserve needs support. Moreover, the 1951 refugee convention has no provision for dealing with climate refugees which has become a reality for millions of Africans and people in the Pacific islands. This phenomenon could dwarf what the world is currently dubbing an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Enlisting Investors, Corporations, States and Cities in the Cause.

Corporations are too deeply invested in current energy technology to even take the minimal steps needed to slow down much less stop the ravages of climate change. In the United States we have two political parties that accommodate corporate interests which makes Obama's impassioned appeal in Paris somewhat paradoxical.

China's involvement in Africa is also a mixed bag. China is in Africa primarily for the extraction of resources, although it has made some undeniable contributions toward infrastructure improvement. The 90% Chinese financed new East Africa railway line is one example.

Conflicts rooted on natural resources and extraction are endemic in Africa as in South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Boko Haram phenomenon in Nigeria, Somalia, the Ogaden and Anuak regions in Ethiopia etc. These conflicts are often superficially analyzed as primarily ethnic and religious conflicts but a deeper examination reveals competition for resources and the destructive role played by multi-national corporations (MNCs) and rich states. Resources in Africa, instead of benefitting the majority of the people have generated conflict and environmental degradation in what is commonly known as resource curse. Even in those countries with high economic growth, the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few.

Africans will forever celebrate brave environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa and lament his loss in the hands of the corrupt Sani Abacha regime in complicity with Royal Dutch/Shell's oilfields in Nigeria. Africa is a digital and nuclear waste dumping ground. Most people are unaware that the initial catalyst for Somali piracy was a form of resistance by some Somali fishermen and by members of the defunct Somali navy to illegal nuclear waste dumping in the shores of Somalia, before it degenerated into criminal activity.

The Way Forward

Professor Ken Conca argues that peace-keeping operations by the United Nations should incorporate environmental protection as a human rights issue consistent with its aspiration for peace and security. A rights based approach gives "tools for accountability in the face of pollution and resource degradation."

We have missed the bus on preventive measures. But a starting point could be compensation money and financing for adapting to climate change that is befitting of the magnitude of the burden Africa is facing through drought, flooding and disruptions to lives without repeating the cycle of rewarding corrupt dictators. Admittedly, this is easier said than done but a creative solution needs to be found.

Paris Climate Meeting should surely address the effect of war in South Sudan, Nigeria and DRC on the environment and internally displaced people (IDP) as well as secretive trade deals like the (TTIP-Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) which will clearly increase the consumption of fossil fuels.

Nairobi Kenya will host the 10th World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference to be held between 15 to the 18th of December. Along with unfair subsidy for American farmers, one hopes the conference will address climate issues impacting Africa.

Africans are acting and trying to help themselves through innovative market mechanisms to respond to crop failure by buying insurance plan. The formation of the Africa Risk Capacity Agency with interest free loan from the UK and German governments provides members with rapid funds in the event of a natural disaster. Early warning system is used to adapt for the possibility of drought and building resiliency. Africans are also adapting their diet to drought-tolerant crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, sorghum and millet and using supplementary irrigation in order to cope with potential prolonged dry spells.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu urges us to stop our addiction to fossil fuel and to invest in clean energy. Westerners don't think of Africans as environmentalists but we remember the great Wangari Maathai of the Green Belt movement's tree-planting activities in Kenya and the principled Ogoni environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa who paid the ultimate price fighting for environmental justice.

The key to helping Africa is not pouring money into unaccountable governments but empowering grassroots environmentalists like Wangari Maathai, Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ugandan forestry activist Gertrude Kabusimbi Kenyangi.

Practicing a Circular Economy that is restorative and regenerative by design, implementation of green technology, investing in geothermal (in East Africa), promoting gas flaring reduction (in West Africa), supporting off-grid renewable energy, small scale solar to power remote villages, wind energy and better public transit can transform Africa and the world. The narrative of development needs rethinking and be tempered with environmental sustainability.