Africa is overlooked in the climate change conversation — we must change that.

A boy and a woman struggle with the dusty wind looking for water in Wajir, Kenya. (Source: USAID)

Our world is experiencing crises like never before. Even ahead of the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, growing inequality, poverty, and conflict threatened peace and security worldwide. The rise of authoritarian regimes and the retreat of democracy in many countries created an environment for these threats to thrive. Perhaps the greatest danger to peace and security is climate change. This is not because climate change on its own does the most damage, but because it serves a threat-multiplier and a catalyst, exacerbating the pre-existing crises that already plague our world. While climate change has gained a lot of attention in recent years and pledges have been made by international organizations and countries to tackle it as quickly as possible, these promises have yet to be kept.

Africa is the region that is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Yet, not only is Africa overlooked in conversations regarding climate change, but it is also a continent that bears the burden of the consequences of the climate crisis despite being the lowest contributor to CO2 emissions. Compared to the U.S., which has emitted “more than a quarter of all historical CO2,” most African countries account for “less than 0.01% of all emissions over the last 266 years.” These numbers highlight the severe contrast of how disproportionately African countries are affected by climate change.

This year, East African countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan experienced the worst locust outbreak, which destroyed crops and worsened the food insecurity that already exists in East Africa. In Sudan, record floods and heavy rains have displaced thousands of people from their homes. In the Sahel, a region facing complex security challenges like inter-communal violence and terrorism, climate change has had a devastating effect. Floods have killed hundreds and displaced thousands. Extreme temperatures, fluctuating rainfalls, and drought have greatly contributed to the instability of the region. The UN has warned that regions like the Sahel, which have been devastated by conflict, could experience a new wave of famine. In addition to the human cost, climate change also poses an imminent threat to invaluable African cultural landmarks.

African nations are making efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and put in place laws to curb practices contributing to it. The most significant move has been to ban the use of plastics. Africa leads the world in plastic bans, with 34 countries introducing restrictions on the importation, production, sale and use of plastic bans. While these efforts create awareness and promote conversations about climate change, they have not been enough to stop the spread of single use plastics. But African countries alone are not to blame for the plastic that is piling up in their cities. The plastic industry and big corporations who rely on plastic for their goods and services have been flooding the continent with plastic, doing devastating damage to the local efforts of governments and environmentalists. The fossil fuel industry and oil companies have also joined the race in reversing the progress made in places like Kenya, by sending lobbyists to pressure the government into using more plastic and importing plastic garbage from foreign countries.

How do we help African countries and other developing nations prepare and fight against climate change? First, rich nations must stop using Africa and other developing nations as their dumping ground. Second, they must do their part in limiting their significant Carbon emissions that continue to contribute to climate change. Making empty promises and pledging to do better won’t solve the problem. Climate financing must be available to African nations to help them mitigate the effects of climate change and to allow them to address the worsening peace and security issues climate change exacerbates. Africa must no longer be excluded in the larger conversation of climate change, as it is the most vulnerable continent whose population will face disproportionately significant crises compared to the rest of the world.

African countries must also do their part in carrying out mass campaigns to educate their citizens about climate change and put in place an infrastructure that supports sustainable development. This is especially true for African farmers and pastoralists who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. Moreover, climate change must be at the top of their domestic priorities and they must work along with policymakers and activists to come up with a national strategy to address habits contributing to climate change in each country. Regional organizations like the African Union and African Development Bank should strengthen their support to their member states and provide monetary and technical assistance to countries who are especially vulnerable, which is nearly every country!

Nani Detti,

Communications Intern, Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement