Although Africa has contributed little to global warming, the continent and other parts of the developing world are bearing the brunt of the resultant climate change, according to scientists and development specialists. The question now is what to do about it before the fallout has disastrous consequences.
The snow atop Mt. Kilimanjaro is receding. Lake Chad is evaporating. Increased flooding, drought, water shortages, rising sea levels and food insecurity are only some of the consequences of climate change across Africa. Already these shifts are having an impact on livelihoods.
"We see frequent crop failures due to droughts and untimely rain leading to crop failures. We also see livestock fatalities, resulting in people losing lots of cattle," Professor Pius Yanda, director of the Institute of Resource Assessment at the University of Dar es Salaam, recently told a panel on climate change and climate justice in the Tanzanian city. "We see flooding destroying infrastructure, settlements, leaving crops in the field. These are vivid examples of impacts which are taking place already."
Heightened competition for dwindling resources, such as water and arable land, increases chances for conflict, which has its own consequences: violence, deaths, displacement, disease and violations of human rights.
Former Irish president Mary Robinson told the audience at the panel, which was a centerpiece of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Forum on climate change, food security and regional economic integration last November, that climate change is a human rights issue.
"The phenomenon of climate change will undermine progress on almost all of the human rights guaranteed in the universal declaration of human rights and other international human rights instruments - and also undermine achievements, particularly for the poorest countries, of the "Millennium Development Goals" to reduce poverty and boost development, said Robinson, former United Nations high commissioner on human rights.
She said climate change was a classic human rights struggle about power: those with the greatest power - mainly developed nations - produced most of the greenhouse gases that have contributed to global warming, while those in developing countries, with the least power, were most at risk from the consequences.
Katherine Sierra, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, said, for example, that if all the SUV's in the United States were replaced with European standard emission cars, that would largely account for the emissions that would give 1.6 billion people – the world's poorest - minimum access to energy. "You could afford to provide 1.6 billion people worth of basic energy to those people who don't have any emissions today, so it's a basic fairness," she said.
Governance Seen as Central
Regardless of who is more responsible for global warming, the panelists emphasized that the time to act was now. Yanda said the way forward is to integrate climate change in the development agenda because it is a crosscutting issue like poverty and Aids. Like the presenters on food security and economic integration, the climate panelists spoke in the context of cell-phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim's conviction that good governance is essential to solving such pressing problems.
U.S. Representative Donald Payne (Democrat - New Jersey), agreed. Payne, chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, quoted former UN secretary general Kofi Annan as saying industrialized nations must live up to the "historic responsibility" for the accumulation of greenhouse gases.
"But on the other hand, if all of the things were mitigated and unless there are changes in many countries in a manner in which governments deal with agriculture and its people and governance in general, the problem will not be solved," he said. "So it's a two-way street. We need to do what we must do there, but by the same token, leadership in Africa has to stand up and do a much better job than what it's done to date."
African environmentalists point to the fact that the continent provided a unified position during recent climate talks in Copenhagen as a step forward in dealing with the challenges of global warming.
In fact, in the face of the potential for disastrous consequences of climate change, some stakeholders see opportunity, although it is not one that Africans can easily achieve without external assistance and private sector support.
"Whilst it's true you are not a large emitter [of greenhouse gases], there are opportunities to get access to some of the new technologies," said Sierra, of the World Bank. "Whether it's geo-thermal, whether it's wind, whether it's off-grid solar and the like, [you can] modernize your energy systems while you're growing."
Scientists who have been warning about the climate-fueled perils to come are struggling to find reasons to be optimistic. African officials, business leaders and civil society representatives who attended the Mo Ibrahim event acknowledged the daunting challenges of coping with the earth's overall warming. But they found ideas to explore, options to pursue and reasons to hope that Africans can be a part of the global solution - if, that is, the world community can find the political will and the financial resources to partner with the least culpable but most affected region.