LSE’s Martin Namasaka urges caution in ascribing climate change as the cause of some of the continent’s conflicts without taking into account local structures and complexities.

Burgeoning dystopian prophecies, literature and accounts of climate change by an array of actors, including UN agencies, national governments, security pundits, scholars and development NGOs, insinuate climate change has entered the realm of politics which posits that it triggers violent conflict.

Even though the African continent contributes only about 3% to global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Resource Institute, it is continually viewed as the most susceptible to increased conflict risk associated to climate change due to its low adaptive capacity. A recent study by the University of Colorado similarly indicates that there is a statistically significant link between hotter temperatures generated by climate change and the risk of armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. Devastatingly, warming in this region is projected to be greater than the global annual mean with an average of three to four degrees in the next century. It is thus expected to affect the livelihoods of millions and permanently displace thousands.

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Interestingly, while Africa has 60% of the world’s arable agricultural land, agricultural losses are gloomily forecasted to result in the loss of between 2% and 7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050, average maize, rice and wheat yields are expected to decline by up to 5% respectively. These austere statistics coupled with numerous admonitions, are perhaps the evidence of a growing realisation of what is at stake for the continent due to climate change. In this vein, it is significant to analyse the climate change politics and how it affects Africa.

First, the Atlantic Monthly (Faris, 2007), followed by the UN Environment Programme report (UNEP, 2007) and then the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (2007) openly admitted that the violence in Darfur is linked to demographic pressures, resource scarcity as well as climate change (Betsy Hartman, 2010). Arguably, these assertions are too simplistic and ignore the history of violence, as well as the inefficient state structures which not only failed to utilise the local social and centralised institutions to address problems of environmental stress in a non-violent manner, but worsened it by choosing to militarise crisis management interventions whenever political disputes arose.

Oversimplifying Darfur poses a danger to future climate policies considering it has gained traction as a climate-induced conflict; in April 2007 the UK government brought the issue of climate change before the UN Security Council, citing the Darfur case (Harvey, 2007). The United States defense think tank Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report entitled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change equally warned that global warming would prompt political instability in poor societies, resulting in mass movements to the United States and Europe eventually causing destabilisation there.

Understanding complex conflicts such as the Rwandan genocide by researchers ought to acknowledge underlying complex issues motivating the conflict actors. Significantly, they should not only focus on what people do and what physical environment they do it in, but most importantly, why they do it.

Third, from the ABC documentary on climate change, Earth 2100, with scenes of future apocalypse showing desperate starving Africans taking up arms against the West, to the farfetched reasons behind the formation of the US military command for Africa (AFRICOM) with its current location in Stuttgart, Africa seems to have been the focus of climate conflict discourse. Subsequently the Pentagon’s involvement and concerns about climate change and its link to security risks posed by the controversially-termed climate refugees especially from Africa, promotes militarising climate policy as well as development aid.

Undoubtedly, climate change is ruining Africa’s agricultural potential. The energy crisis and resource limits in wealthy countries intertwined with fossil fuels’ role in climate change has significantly spawned African farmland for biofuel production, which in turn is being touted as “green growth” in the global south. That growth, however, benefits not Africa’s small-scale farmers, but the agribusinesses based in those very countries intent on tapping apparently “empty” cropland to sustain their energy-intensive economies (Daniel Bornstein, 2013).

With the emergence of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) – the initiative to tackle climate change by keeping carbon locked in standing forests, paying people in developing tropical countries to protect their forests, generating carbon credits and selling them to an international carbon market, faces the risk of promoting corruption and could potentially reduce Africa’s attention to agriculture.

As world leaders are expected to sign an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions from 2020 onwards at a Paris conference in December 2015, it is imperative that Africa should be brought into the board room and to the negotiating table. This is because African forests accounts for 17% of the world’s total and provides a carbon sink which helps to absorb global carbon dioxide emissions from industrialised and polluting western countries.

The ever-increasing likelihood of climate change impacts on Africa undeniably makes adaptation a priority issue. Regrettably, it is not enough and effective on its own. Approaching the issue of climate change with the premise that it leads to violent conflict especially in Africa may be an obstacle to a more precise examination of the processes and the promotion of adaptive mechanisms and strategies involved.

 

Martin Namasaka is a post-graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He holds a B.A in Development Communication from the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and is passionate about International Development.

Follow him on Twitter @Martinnamasaka.  Contact: m.m.namasaka@lse.ac.uk.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.