Climate Change in Africa: Is My House on Fire?

Arid soils in Mauritania are some of the effects of climate change. Photo: Oxfam/Pablo Tosco

16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg first grabbed local spotlight in August 2018 after skipping school to stage “school strikes for the climate,” protesting in front of the Swedish parliament. Global attention followed in December after a fiery speech at COP24, the UN climate talks in Poland; and peaked at the World Economic Forum a few weeks ago.

Her speech in Davos proclaimed, “our house is on fire,” silencing a room of global leaders as she demanded economists tackle global warming by panicking, stressing that “the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis.” The evidence of this crisis, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is that we are less than twelve years away from being able to undo environmental mistakes.

According to Thunberg, “no other current challenge can match the importance of establishing a wide, public awareness and understanding of our rapidly disappearing carbon budget, that should and must become our new global currency and the very heart of our future and present economics.”

That is quite an economically sophisticated assertion and had me scurrying to suss out the situation in my own country’s economic planning for climate change.

The South African government recently introduced new legislation in response to the rapid climate risks heightened by large emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The Carbon Tax Act becomes effective on June 1, 2019, applies over and above the corporate income tax, and imposes a carbon tax on entities emitting GHGs above a permissible limit. The bill isn’t perfect, but it is a start.

When I mentioned the Carbon Tax Act to South African comedian Loyiso Gola, he replied, “McBride, does the state even have the capacity to enforce something like this?” I was pleased to inform him of a landmark ruling, dubbed “SA’s first climate change court case.” In summary, in 2017 Earthlife Africa Johannesburg (ELA) successfully challenged the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and Thabametsi Power Company after Thabametsi was selected as one of two “preferred bidders” in the first bidding round of the government’s plan to support the construction of several privately-owned new coal-fired power stations in South Africa, known as the Coal Baseload Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (CBIPPPP). ELA challenged the “environmental authorization” given to Thabametsi by the DEA, allowing the company to build a power station without adequately considering the climate change impacts that this project will have.

This was the first time South Africa’s courts have had to decide on a case like this, and the implications are promising. For one, proper consideration of GHG emissions and other environmental risks (like impacts on scarce water resources) are becoming entrenched. The ruling has already led to closer scrutiny of the CBIPPPP specifications, subsequently revealed to be GHG emission-inefficient. In other words, meaningful reduction of GHG emissions by these new power plants is largely unfeasible.

I wouldn’t have been paying attention to any of this before spotting Thunberg’s speech on social media. As striking as her passionate call to stop GHG emissions was, it was her request for everyone with insight into this crisis to “speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be.” A quick inventory of my own insights felt sorely sparse, and that’s where my journalistic jaunt to learn about climate change began in earnest.

I now know that last year the DEA published a document outlining the national position on climate change. In the same month, two South African activists won a prestigious environmental prize for exposing the government’s “secret and corrupt” nuclear energy deal. In what has been described as a David versus Goliath battle, Makoma Lekalakala (director of ELA) and Liz McDaid (from the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute) were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for their work uncovering the state’s unlawful nuclear energy deal with Russia. The prize is awarded every year to six individuals spanning six continents for their grassroots environmental activism.

I also know that, like many issues in South Africa, environmental activism is beleaguered by race relations. This is explained by “the green ceiling” or lack of transformation and workforce diversity in mainstream environmental organizations; and common misconceptions about environmental activism as a “whites-only issue” since black South Africans champion issues like labor conditions and socioeconomic equality in more demonstrative ways. The polarization of environmental and social activism in South Africa is an interesting prism for reflecting on the difficulty of balancing tangible solutions (social justice) with relatively esoteric goals (mitigating against scientific estimates on more complicated spatio-temporal scales).

Surprisingly though, what I can’t get a handle on is climate change in the rest of Africa. I know that developing regions dependent on rain-fed agriculture and coastal livelihoods are disproportionately vulnerable, so references to Africa as contributing least to but affected most by climate change have become a spurious truism.

What I didn’t know was that research into climate change in Africa is biased with existing research dominated by how climate change will affect countries that a) are former British colonies, b) have stronger protections for civil liberties, and c) have more stable political institutions. In a perfect example of “the streetlight effect” – a drunk loses his keys in the park but looks for them under a streetlight because that’s where it’s easier to see – international scholars are going to the countries that are most convenient for them to visit and study. As a result, as much is known about Kenya and South Africa (combined population of 99 million) as 29 other African countries (combined population of 280 million). This is explained by underfunded African education systems resulting in African climate change research being conducted and funded by non-Africans, vulnerable to the biases of those researchers and their funding agencies.

Proposed solutions include funders pursuing grant proposals in non-Anglophone African countries and those that are less politically open; or funding English translations of African academic outputs. One article asks, “what if we talk about this hurtling climate devastation just to share the burden of that heavy knowledge?” In this regard, the importance of indigenous activism on climate change in Africa cannot be stressed enough: their projects and advocacy should be integrated into academia, activism, and news media to better inform public discourse.

Despite being increasingly recognized as a critical issue in human history, climate change is paradoxically difficult for us to communicate. Generating conversations that suggest urgency and inspire change is not an easy task, beleaguered as they are by emotions that we are only now formulating into words. Like the emerging condition of eco-anxiety, defined as the dread that attends “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.”

This is surely the visceral vein that Thunberg wants to needle: some of us (in our safe spaces, temperate climates) are fortunate to enjoy the temporary luxury of contemplating climate change intellectually, without confronting it materially. But “climate change can seem abstract even in the middle of a hurricane.” Fully confronting the immensity of it demands a total package of emotion evocation—apprehension, sorrow, shock, rage, compassion… and panic. Not tear-your-hair-out panic, but a perspective change for new experiments in pragmatism. Like this interplanetary assessment of possible outcomes for our planet under different scenarios, which treats the climate crisis like the wars on cancer or poverty – less environmental wrong to be set right, more emerging source of risk – in need of lifelong commitment girded by both urgency and patience.

Less galactically, but no less important or innovative, the BBC has issued formal guidance on how to report climate change. That one of the world’s largest and most respected news organizations is clarifying its stance, and expecting its journalists to stick to it, is not nothing. For many, journalists included, how climate-related events are interpreted and prioritized are influenced by a complex combination of beliefs and worldviews, personal experience and place, whether marine or mountain, urban or desert.  Some people fear climate change, some deny it, some don’t know what to believe and many don’t want to talk about it at all. Understanding how social identities like race, class, and gender shape climate change communication is increasingly important; and similarly, the different strategies used  in climate change action.

For instance, research into youth dissent as expressed through climate activism suggest three types of activism: dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous dissent. Not all forms of dissent are equally challenging to the status quo and not all can be interpreted in a positive light – some dissent arises from failed expectations and frustration and without constructive outlets, is at risk of moving toward withdrawal, inaction, or angry violence; in turn directed against other marginalized people, like migrants fleeing environmental degradation.

I understand now that what Thunberg referred to as “a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people” is worse than a drought, flood, or heatwave. It’s not treating climate change like wildfire, and casually burning down the house in the process.

Sindi-Leigh McBride is a researcher and writer.