In Africa, not a day goes by that we don’t discuss climate change. The climate issue is not simply the preserve of large-scale media debates or even seminars held in luxury hotels. It is present at the peanut seller’s stall and the street vendor’s midday meal. You can even detect climate concerns in the bargaining between the trainee on Senegal’s famous cars rapides minibuses and his customers.
Ibrahima Thiam works on climate change and natural resources at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s West Africa Office in Dakar, Senegal.
Translated by Eve Richens and Helena Kernan for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Climate change doesn’t spare motor tricycle drivers in Tanzania or those who travel by horse and cart in the remotest villages. It is now a problem that affects everybody. Its consequences are especially conspicuous in the Global South, with all that that entails: coastal erosion, desertification, flooding, soil salinization, loss of biodiversity, etc. Climate change is disrupting everyday habits, routines, and customs, and tearing apart the fabric of society that has thus far preserved the social equilibrium.
The continent of Africa suffers from huge climate injustice given its minimal contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Its vulnerability is only increasing, forcing the population to adapt to challenging circumstances.
Damn climate change that has broken families apart and forced them to emigrate.
Damn this process that has diminished the fishery resources relied upon by the veteran fisherman who is still collecting his share of fish despite competition with younger generations.
Damn climate change that has dried up the breasts of the mother who in the hope of a better future, offers her empty breast to her baby while avoiding his gaze.
Who is exempt? Who is spared? Who is responsible?
The recent heatwaves and prolonged droughts across western Europe led to forest fires and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Europe is overheating and experienced record-breaking temperatures last year that were 0.4 degrees Celsius higher than the average from 1991–2020. Europe is also paying for its share of the responsibility. Despite the continent’s ability to adapt to climate change, its older population is a source of vulnerability.
In any case, we know who the victims of climate change are. They are Ndeye Yacine and Fatou Samba, who look on each day as the sea eats away at what remains of their family homes. The sea has become their sworn enemy, one without pity or remorse. Migration begins inside the home as the inhabitants move into the parts that have not yet been destroyed by coastal erosion. Young and old people of the same sex share bedrooms. A single room is sometimes inhabited by eight people. And if someone braves the sea in search of a better life, it transforms into a cemetery, swallowing up young, hopeless souls in its depths.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Global South does not have time to dance to the false tune of international institutions or the whims of polluting countries.
The victims are also the farmers of the Saloum Delta, who only have a single source of income left — agriculture. The rain is like a vengeful god. It is the only hope they have for the water that they need in order to sow and reap a better harvest. If the rain god is in a bad mood, rain becomes scarce and even plays tricks on the crops. Farmers are forced to leave the Saloum Delta and move to cities, overcrowded urban environments where they become scapegoats for all kinds of problems and face harassment and even ridicule. They leave acres of land to become homeless outcasts.
The victims are the housewife who makes do with what little is left and the family patriarch who sees his family’s demands grow and consoles himself by accusing his wife of skimping on supplies to invest in tontines and the like. The market garden crisis has even made the vegetables needed for the traditional Senegalese dish of thieboudienne scarce. Even the thiof (white grouper) fish has migrated to other areas. Everyone complains, everyone blames each other.
Do we need to count the COPs to see the despair on the faces of the victims of climate change? Every time the next COP conference is announced, Ndeye Yacine hopes that solutions will be found for climate change victims like her. She pins some hope on the discussion of “loss and damages” because for her it is a question of reparations. She hopes one day to see her house regain its lost charm. Why shouldn’t she have a new home and live with dignity?
As the number of COPs increases, so too does the sorrow and bitterness.
“This COP Will Be African”
When Egypt, a country on the continent most affected by climate change, was chosen to host the COP in 2022, cheers rang out from the depths of villages and hamlets, hope was born in the hearts of climate victims, and bruised faces broke out into smiles. The year 2022 would make an impression because Africa would organize COP27 and the whole of Africa would leap up and cry out, “This COP will be African!” And yet before that there was Nairobi 2006, Durban 2011, and Marrakech 2016.
Didn’t COP17 take place in Durban, South Africa? And wasn’t the main issue at COP17 the adoption of an agreement that would require the establishment and fast-track financing of the Green Climate Fund, a promise that had been made at COP15 in Copenhagen?
A fund of 30 billion US dollars, Ndeye Yacine read in the news. This sum represented the commitment of developed countries to financing the fight against climate change between 2010 and 2012, with an additional 100 billion dollars pledged for 2012–2020.
It was in Durban that 37 industrial nations agreed upon targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the effects of global heating. It was in Durban that the Technology Mechanism was designed, an initiative aimed at helping developing nations adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects that was implemented in 2012.
In spite of repeated failures to make good on the promises of various COP agreements, the African continent has always had high expectations when it comes to adapting to climate change and mitigating its effects.
Sharm El-Sheikh was heralded as an opportunity to provide justice for the continent. COP27 ended with an agreement on the establishment of a financial mechanism that would compensate vulnerable countries for “loss and damages” due to natural disasters caused by the devastation of the climate. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the agreement on loss and damages represented a “step towards justice”. But can we call this a historic agreement when 81 percent of the funds allocated to Latin America and the Caribbean do not come in form of grants, but in the form of loans?
Furthermore, Mr. Guterres has expressed regret that COP27 did not answer the question of dramatically reducing emissions. If even the head of world diplomacy notes the limits of the COP, what can civil society or a poor farmer expect to gain from it?
Voices that criticize the effectiveness of the COP are emerging. Voices like that of the Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey, who thinks that the solution to the problems of climate change will be found outside of the COP. Bassey believes the solutions lie in mobilizing Indigenous groups to take concrete action and organize methods of agriculture that help to cool down the planet. He calls the COP a “rigged” process that functions in a highly colonial manner and places the responsibility for climate change onto its victims.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Global South does not have time to dance to the false tune of international institutions or the whims of polluting countries and that solutions to climate change can only come from the population themselves. For this reason, we need more groundwork, more raising of awareness, and more research on Indigenous environmental preservation practices. We need to revisit the past to organize better forms of resilience in response to the crisis, especially as the war in Ukraine has weakened Africa by making its vulnerabilities even more apparent.
More and more voices are emerging to criticize the organization of the COP. Perhaps the only benefit of the COP is to make people realize that it is not designed for the victims of climate change or for their spokespeople. It functions more as a parade or photo opportunity for heads of state who pretend that they are taking action while being anxious to appear in the official photo. The COP pavilions are financially inaccessible to actual climate defenders and the exorbitant cost of accommodation has deterred many from attending. This COP has been a COP for the rich. This COP has been a COP for the banks.
In the future, we need to give priority to local meetings and perhaps even organize local COPs in the Global South. These meeting spaces should allow for the exchange of experiences, make victims’ voices heard, and lead to proposed solutions.
In the end, you wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to boycott the COP entirely and concentrate our efforts elsewhere.