Africans and climate change

Ehsan Masood
7 February 2007

The timing? Well, it could have been better. The summit of heads of state from fifty-three African Union countries in Addis Ababa on 29-30 January 2007 was overshadowed by the intense, worldwide media coverage of the latest scientific assessment on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), published on 2 February.

The near-coincidence was not good news for the people of Africa - who, by all accounts, are among the most vulnerable, the least prepared and have the most to lose if global warming continues unchecked.

At one level, then, you would expect Africa's leaders to take note of the IPPC's latest warnings - already heavily trailed by the time the summiteers gathered - and start to think about planning ahead.

This is not what happened.

Also on Africa and climate change in openDemocracy:

Camilla Toulmin, "Africa: make climate change history"
(17 May 2005)

Richard Burge, "Africa, Europe, and carbon credits: a proposal"
(29 June 2005)

Adam Poole, "Nairobi fallout: the climate-change future"
(22 November 2006)

Oliver Tickell, "Climate change: the last chance"
(6 February 2007)

At the summit, tempers began to rise during a debate on global warming . Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni was one of the first to take the floor, and he set the tone for what was to follow during the next half-hour. Global warming, Museveni said, is "an act of aggression" by the developed world against the African people.

After him, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso declared: "Those who pollute, should pay."

Olusegun Obasanjo, outgoing president of Nigeria said that a fund set up by rich countries to help pay for clean power in developing countries did not nearly go far enough. "It is imperative that the developed nations make effective compensation."

What had got them going was not in fact the 2500-member IPPC and anticipation of its latest report assessing the extent of global warming over the next century. Their irritation stemmed from the presence of Nicholas Stern, the top civil servant at the British government's Commission for Africa and author of the influential Stern review on the economics of climate change.

The African Union secretariat had invited Stern to address AU leaders on climate change, its causes and its impacts. Stern's presentation was a straightforward retelling of what we know: climate change has been caused by the industrialised world, but Africa and the countries of the developing world will suffer disproportionately unless action is taken soon.

Stern spoke to the delegates as would an independent expert - which may well be how he regards himself. Only he isn't one, and this quite clearly became a problem for many in his audience.

To an AU delegate it appeared as if a representative of one of the world's biggest-polluting nations had come to Africa to lecture the continent's leaders on how to be clean. Not only that, he seemed to be saying: my country is among those that have caused global warming. Global warming is going to damage all of you, more than it will damage all of us. So my advice to you would be to do something about it before it is too late.

Don't lecture us

The IPCC reports are bigger, more authoritative and more independent compared with Nicholas Stern's document (now published as a book). But they are perceived in much the same way by many policymakers in developing countries, and for much the same reasons. Ask anyone on the floor of the AU summit what they thought of the IPCC, and he or she would likely say that it is a body set up by the developed world to save its own skin from a problem of its own making.

Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Ehsan Masood blogged the African Union summit in Addis Ababa on Nature Newsblog.

Among Ehsan Masood’s articles in openDemocracy:

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"The world's thirst"
(26 January 2007)


It might help if the IPCC had more visible scientists from developing countries - and more from Africa. But the presidents made clear in Addis that they regard scientific lectures on global warming as essentially hypocritical. What this means is that it is going to take more than hot scientific advice to convince them that they have as much of a job to do on global warming as Tony Blair or George W Bush.

Someone who well understands the magnitude of this task is Youba Sokona from Mali, the head of the Sahara and Sahel climate observatory, based in Tunisia, and a leading member of the IPCC.

Sokona had been invited to address the heads of state after Stern. But he found himself cut short because the leaders were getting impatient and wanted to move onto other things - their agenda included a planned new pan-African parliament, a court of human rights, three new funding agencies, as well as finding enough peacekeepers for Sudan and Somalia.

Sokona didn't try to hide his frustrations; he likened European, United States and African Union attitudes to global warming as three adjacent houses that had all caught fire. "Each house is burning. But instead of trying to put the flames out, each first wants to find someone to blame."

From environment to development

Sokona says that two things have to change if Africa's leaders are to be brought on side in the race against global warming:

  • to communicate climate change better from an African perspective
  • to turn climate change into more of a development issue, and consequently less of an environmental one.

He is right. Public discussion on climate change in Europe and the US is primarily concerned with reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, with mainstreaming energy conservation, levying green taxes, and so on. These make sense within a developed-world context. But for the African Union - and Africans more generally - greenhouse-gas emissions are the least of their problems: emissions are a tiny fraction of those of the developed world, and there are no emissions-reduction obligations on developing countries, at least until 2012.


What AU countries do need, however, is development. Just across the road from the convention centre where AU leaders met, people are living in makeshift housing, and small children can be seen walking barefoot. Families need housing, schools, water, energy, and more. Yet at the same time we know that these families are also more vulnerable to climate change. If development is to come their way, it is doubly imperative that this be made climate-proof.

Ultimately, Sokona says, Africa's leaders will need to take the initiative on climate change as they already are in building the AU and its institutions. "It's just not good enough any more to say that we are going to do nothing on climate change because it is somebody else's fault."

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