Africa: A year of record climate disasters

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People take refuge on the roofs of buildings following flooding caused by Cyclone Idal in Mozambique - photo cr World VisionFlickr

While the world literally burns from climate and political turmoil, it is possible for Africa and other vulnerable regions to be overlooked. reports Nnimmo Bassey   for Green Left

In an age where powerful leaders and corporations are wilfully in denial of the unfolding climate catastrophe, the news media could be drawn to focus more on assassinations, upcoming elections and the warmongering triggered by the petro-military complex.

It is critically important that the world pays attention to the disastrous impacts already being experienced in Africa, and other vulnerable territories.

2019 was a year of extreme weather events across the world. Sweltering heat hit much of the world. Raging wildfires were recorded in Brazil, Bolivia, Australia and the United States. Huge floods ravaged even cities like Venice, famed to be able to handle floods.

Extreme weather

Climate change was implicated in exposing more than 33 million Africans (spread across Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya) to food insecurity emergencies. The food situation has been compounded by the erosion of food sovereignty due to the loss of biodiversity.

Violent conflicts and poverty add another dimension to the dire situation and raises the number of those vulnerable to more than 52 million.

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two huge cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of more than 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million people.

Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region.

If parts of Africa warm at double the global average, it means that if the global 1.5ºC target of the Paris Agreement is achieved, we can expect a 3ºC temperature rise scenario in Africa.

If the “well below” 2ºC temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is the result due to a lack of ambition, Africa will be cooked at more than 4ºC.

The global lack of ambition or readiness to seriously tackle global warming and the aggregation of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) already points to more than 3ºC temperature rise — condemning parts of Africa to a calamitous roasting.

Climate refugees

Last year, the continent experienced a high level of climate-induced refugees and migrations. Some of these refugees are internally displaced while many, seeking to escape the clutches of the disaster, lost their lives in the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea.

The shrinkage of Lake Chad and the attendant social upheavals are already very well known. From a size of more than 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s, the lake measures a mere 2500 square kilometres today. What caught the attention of the world towards the end of last year is the shrinkage of Victoria Falls to mere trickles due to disastrous droughts in the region.

In addition to the floods, droughts, deforestation and food shortages, violence complicates and escalates the problems. Floods displaced hundreds of thousands in Somalia last year.

Disasters happen when hazards meet vulnerability. Things cannot get worse than when you live in an unstable society, with violence knocking on the door, and then climate change steps in.

Nigerians, though warned of impending floods, could do nothing to stem the tide when they arrived. Storms and cyclones brought deadly floods that hit Angola, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. More than half a million people were affected by floods in Ethiopia and in South Sudan.

According to reports, entire communities were submerged by floods, destroying basic services, markets and farms. Floods between August and October affected more than 420,000 people in Sudan, with 78 people dead and 49,500 homes destroyed.

There are genuine reasons for anger at the inability of the multilateral system to address the climate challenge in a serious manner.

Things have gone so badly it has taken the rising of children to call out dithering adults before they could even come up with fictive false solutions.

Vulnerable nations, including those in Africa were forced into a deadlock over Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. That article is the sword that fossil fuel interest groups foisted on the planet.

The Article seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, which allows polluters to buy a license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins.

Stop fossil fuels

The first step is to halt extracting and burning new fossil fuels. Next step is a planned systemic change. The alternative will be a chaotic change for those that may survive.

Science informs us that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80% of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

Rather than halt the extraction of climate-harming fuels, the industry is set to invest US$1.4 trillion in new oil and gas projects between 2020-24. It is estimated that this will yield 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 and would drive the world to a 2ºC temperature rise.

A combination of factors places African nations in a tight corner and requires critical examination of the route forward.

First, while African nations have contributed little to the depletion of the carbon budget, and have been quite ambitious in the NDCs, they are trapped in the catch-up narrative, where they make the futile dash to be like the rich, industrialised and polluting nations.

They push for serious climate mitigation actions while ensuring high economic growth and development. Considering that economic growth and development in the current capitalistic and neoliberal framework propels climate change, it should be obvious that this is the wrong way forward.

Different vision of development

2020 presents us with an opportunity to look back, hopefully not in anger. It presents us with a moment to interrogate the notion of development and growth in a finite world. It also gives us a moment to deliberate on the means of halting fossil fuel proliferation and how to secure a just cooperative future for our peoples.

Oilwatch International has proposed that a group of Annex Zero nations be created in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as a means of promoting real climate action. Countries like Belize, Costa Rica, France and New Zealand can already be grouped here as they have halted fossil fuels extraction. Ogoniland can also be recognised as a community that has taken this action within Nigeria.

A fossil fuels non-proliferation treaty has been proposed for the halting of a disaster that is more likely to happen than what triggered the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

We can be sure that 2020 will be even more challenging than 2019 in terms of climate impacts. There will be more climate disasters and accompanying displacements.

It is time for global solidarity demanding real climate action — starting with divestments and halting of new fossil fuels projects. It is time for all to raise our voices while we have the opportunity.

Tomorrow may be too late for any planned transition if system change and radical socio-ecological transformation is not birthed quickly.

[Abridged from Climate and Capitalism. This article originally appeared in the Review of African Political Economy. Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian environmentalist activist, author and poet. He chaired Friends of the Earth International from 2008 through 2012 and was Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action for two decades. He is director of the ecological think-tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), based in Nigeria.]

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