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Making Sense from the ‘Nonsense’ of Climate Change: A Sub-Saharan African Perspective

By Churchill Okonkwo
 Published March 31st, 2009

Scientific evidence of the destabilizing human influence on global climatic systems is continuing to build, creating a growing momentum for response – at least in the global North. It is generally agreed today in most developed countries that climate policy decisions driving future greenhouse gas mitigation effort will strongly influence the compliance with article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - avoiding Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference (DAI) with the climate system. While for most developing countries, the thorny question has been whether the global South have the right to increase their greenhouse emissions as they industrialize and ‘develop,’ Sub-Saharan African countries however are still grappling with other equally urgent crisis arising from poor governance, social conflict, poverty, and high disease burden particularly from HIV/AIDS and malaria.

In the context of these two set of problems begging for action, this article asks: should countries in Sub-Saharan Africa worry about climate change or should they rather channel their scarce resources to the intractable social-economic crisis? How can Sub-Saharan African countries make sense from the ‘nonsense’ of global climate change?

In trying to answer these questions, one should first understand the forces operating in the sub-region. The first aspect to point out is that the story of Africa from the last century till date has been a story of conflict. From the ravages of many civil wars to the rivalries of greedy, selfish-military dictators and religo-ethnic conflicts, Africa has always evolved and is still evolving in opposition to something. The sub-region has been evolving in opposition to the challenges presented by the rising level of poverty, AIDS, integration in Africa, economic/political reform, corruption, sham democracies, environmental degradation and the high energy costs.

Certainly, the enormous challenges posed by poverty, lack of access to health facilities, safe drinking water and basic infrastructure demands immediate attention. However, the argument that tackling the aforementioned challenges should supersede that of climate change simply because climate change is too far out of sight and based on equity that the rich and developed countries have no right to make demand on the poor countries suffers some fundamental flaws.

It is worth stating at this point that all the models of the future climate change scenarios have projected that Africa is the most vulnerable region to climate change due to the extreme poverty, frequent natural disasters such as droughts and floods and its overdependence on agriculture). Some of these stresses will to a large extent be exacerbated by climate change. To illustrate this point one need only refer to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of several models that projects not just higher temperatures and lower rainfall in the Sahel regions but an increasing probability of El Nino – Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event that will lead to flooding.

In addition to flooding, experts believe that climate change and variability have both direct and indirect link to some endemic diseases in the region. Water borne diseases and cholera has been reported to have increased during El Nino; meningitis in the West African region could expand to other regions of the continent; breeding of the plasmodium parasites that causes malaria could be facilitated by flooding.

Furthermore, one hast to remember that Sub-Saharan African coastal zones are characterized by concentration of industries and population as a result of its high productivity ecosystems and economic activities from sea ports. It is estimated that 40% of the population in West Africa live in coastal cities between Accra (Ghana) and Niger Delta (Nigeria) and that pressures on infrastructure makes the cities less resilient to climate change. Another good example is the flooding of Lagos Island streets in Nigeria by surging Bar Beach in rainy seasons. Any significant seal-level rise in the South Atlantic will thus be catastrophic for the entire regions. There will be loss of property, coastal habitat, life, tourism, subsistence resources, transportation functions, non-monetary cultural resources and values as well as negative impact on agriculture and aquaculture through decline in soil and water quality.

I will thus argue that it makes sense to start making policy decisions that will not only put the region on the right path to sustainable economic growth and development but that Sub-Saharan African countries should and most start worrying about the wider implications of global climate change on these problems.

Foot-dragging and obstruction of global collaboration by the Bush administration on climate change based on the fear of giving the developing economies a competitive advantage if they are permitted to emit greenhouse gasses has given way to Obama’s new policy on ‘green economy’. With this renewed optimism and sense of urgency in developing a green economy, the world is moving towards what Thomas Friedman called ‘Energy-Climate Era’ in his book Hot Flat and Crowded.

This further raises the question of the place of Sub-Saharan Africa in the Energy-Climate Era; will the Sub-Saharan Africa wake up one day and find itself behind the rest of the world in this new era? Or should they start now to identify, build and strengthen the capacity to respond to questions raised by climate change by making sense from the ‘nonsense’?

In the final analysis, assessing the potential impacts of the climate change on the regional scale is essential for identifying the vulnerabilities these systems will display under future climate change. While admitting that the challenges of poverty, disease control, failure of the political structure and near absence of growth and economic development calls for urgent action, the climate change challenges should nevertheless be integrated into policy decision. Equally relevant is the need for the emergence of strong private governance to comprehensively articulate an action plan, focusing on the activities of private non state actors as it relates to climate change.

By considering a range of socio-economic futures and climate projections, they can obtain estimates of the responses to key sectors to a given level of change. Value judgment regarding the tolerability of these impacts can then be made enabling the establishment, evaluation and revision of emission targets aimed at avoiding unacceptable levels of change.

What conclusions can be drawn from all these? The sub-region needs to start making sense from the ‘nonsense’ of climate change. A way forward needs to integrate and address the consequences for poor and hungry people. Inaction now and over the coming decades could create risks of further disruptions to economic and social activity, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and economic depressions. I personally believe that it makes sense to think and act strategically on issues of climate change that is becoming ever more urgent. And Sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford to play a catch up role yet again – not in this new energy-climate era.

Churchill Okonkwo

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