Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Global Warming: Africa’s New Chains of Poverty?

Author: Adeline T. Massima

Global warming could put Africa on the back foot after the continent has managed to make some lost ground. Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario, according to the science, could snuff this nascent progress. In fact, it could bind Africa in a new cycle of poverty and aid dependency to the West.

You probably should know this by now. But, just in case you did not, here it is: the single most important threat to mankind is climate change – global warming. In fact, it dwarfs all other concerns – including the constant fear of nuclear war – since we are talking about the planet and the eventual seismic changes that will occur as a result of how humanity has collectively lived in the past. More than 100 million people could die between now and 2050 from the effects of climate change, if the world does not take decisive steps to arrest it. It is now accepted gospel in academic and policy circles that the developing world will disproportionately suffer the devastating toll of climate change in lives and money, though its role in causing this existential crisis is very minuscule  What this means for Africa is an ethical issue. Global warming could trap Africa in severe poverty, forcing it into a new cycle of dependency on aid from the West.

Oxfam photo of a family gathering firewood in drought-stricken Kenya in 2011.

It is truly impossible to underestimate the potential cost of global warming to Africa – in lives and money. No one can be certain of the future, but the signs are all too clear: global record heat waves, unprecedented floods, rapid loss of ice caps, and natural disasters on television that look like apocalyptic religious texts come to life. If there is one group of people unprepared for global warming and its consequences, it’s Africans. If the world refuses to take this problem seriously, the world’s poor will overwhelmingly be the victims. But, it is the likelihood of one possibility playing out that should concern most Africans.

The cost of climate change and its impact on Africa’s collective national economies could, realistically, put the Continent in a new, perpetual cycle of aid dependency on the West. That is to say that climate change could shackle Africa in poverty for a very long time. And, as the effects of climate change grow precipitously, the volatilities from natural disasters alone could eventually see most of its economic gains wiped out. It could easily be reduced to having to beg for aid for its starving, natural disaster-ridden populace.

Since the Continent is poor it cannot contribute to the gargantuan sum environmental scientists believe should be spent annually to mitigate this problem. According to the UN, “most estimates [on the global cost of mitigating climate change] fall in a range from $250 billion to $800 billion per year between now and 2040.” The World Bank estimates that between 2010 and 2050, the cost for sub-Sahara Africa to adapt to climate change will be at least $18 billion annually. This sum does not include the cost of putting African economies on a low-carbon path. Just to give you a good idea of what we are talking about here; the Nigerian president recently proposed a $29.3 billion federal budget for 2013. Nigeria is the second largest economy in sub-Sahara Africa after South Africa.

The likelihood of a crushing climate-induced African poverty is high, because the political will to do what it takes to avoid this scenario is lacking. But, also, most importantly, it is because Africans are incredibly powerless and not a serious voice in the climate change debate – or in any debate on the international stage. Western policy makers, with the money and technology to deal with the worst outcomes of global warming to their citizens, do not take seriously – even though it’s now an ethical matter – the millions of people in the poor parts of the world who are certain to be casualties of the brave new world humanity is about to face. The American presidential debates – all three of them – notably did not touch on the most important issue facing mankind. The global economic crises has proven a great excuse for many countries to fall behind on their financial responsibilities to the funds set up to protect poor vulnerable countries.

As increasingly seems to be the case, the developed world, considered the chief architect of this global predicament, due to its economic policies beginning in the 20th century, does not have the will to conclusively face the high cost of the problem. So, it doesn’t look like the human race will do enough to abate the worst aspects of a warming planet. In a continent where more than 80 percent of the inhabitants still consider themselves farmers by profession, what will happen when rainfall patterns increasingly become erratic? What happens when widespread crop failures become the new norm?

The consensus is that the effect of global warming will be to accentuate the extremes
with more pronounced droughts and more severe flooding.

Some studies conducted on the potential damage to the Continent have returned with some precarious predictions. For instance, according to an IPCC study (International Governmental Panel on Climate Change), “projected reductions in yields in some countries could be as much as 50 percent by 2020, and crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100, with small-farm holders being the most affected. It will also aggravate the water stress currently faced by some countries – about 25 percent of Africa’s population (about 200 million people) currently experience high water stress. The population at risk of increased water stress in Africa is projected to be between 350-600 million by 2050.”

When global warming comes full-term, African countries will look to the international community for aid – handouts, if you will – to deal with the humanitarian crisis. The disaster will be overwhelming. The question to ask, though, is: if the international community is unwilling to foot the bill for the preventative measures necessary to avoid the worst of what seems so evidently on its way, would it be willing to give aid that is triple the cost it so ardently shrugged off earlier? The irresponsible borrowing of African governments post independence still saddles an entire continent more than 60 years later. Climate change could do the very same; it could be the new chains on a Continent newly acquainted with signs of a better tomorrow.

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