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Rise of the African Eco-Warriors

- Mithika Mwenda and Patrick Bond

COLUMN: While there is paralysis from above, exciting new forms of movement-building from below in Africa are saying ‘No to climate genocide!’

In the wake of the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in November 2019, Wits School of Governance academics share their perspective on the rise of African climate justice as world elites fail.

Eco-Warriors |

Among the several million protesters at the global Climate Strike on 20 September were thousands of Africans. Amongst the two dozen African cities hosting protests, young activists marched in Nairobi, Kampala, Dakar, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Yet their protest is not new – recall a point 10 years ago, when vocal Africans made the case that the global North was preparing Africa for a climate “holocaust”: Copenhagen’s 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

African climate holocaust

Sudanese diplomat and a leading African negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping, used the word ‘holocaust’ in December 2009, after the leaders of the United States, Brazil, South Africa, India and China conspired to sabotage existing United Nations processes in a small side-room. The Copenhagen Accord was adopted outside the parameters of the main negotiations. Hence, this “league of super-polluters blew up the United Nations,” according to Bill McKibben, American environmental journalist and leader of the climate campaign group

However, it was also at this summit that a spontaneous protest had erupted from the floor 10 days earlier. Impatient with negotiations, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (Pacja) temporarily disrupted the formal event and addressed a rally at a makeshift podium at Copenhagen’s Bella Centre.

Chanting “Two degrees is suicide! One Africa, one degree!” and proclaiming “No to climate colonialism! No to climate genocide!”, the Pacja activists demanded much greater emissions cuts from the gathered leaders. Supporting the activists, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote to the UNFCCC leadership: “We are facing impending disaster on a monstrous scale … A global goal of about two degrees Celsius is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”

In 2011, the UNFCCC summit was held in Africa, but even worse power relations prevailed, as the host South Africa played into the hands of the US State Department. At the summit in Durban, Pacja brought three busloads of activists from as far away as Uganda to participate in a major climate justice protest demonstration outside.

Last tango in Paris

In 2015, the major emitters – the US, Europe, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan – agreed in Paris on new ways to undermine global climate governance. For example, not only was the voluntary character of the Copenhagen Accord reaffirmed, there was no accountability mechanism nor attempt to punish those countries which backslid. When in June 2017, shortly after ascending to the US Presidency, Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the largest historic emitter from the deal, there was no punishment, notwithstanding calls across the spectrum – from Canadian author Naomi Klein, American economist Joseph Stiglitz, and former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy – for anti US sanctions.

Together with its fundamentally voluntary character, another fatal flaw in the Paris Agreement is that costs of ‘loss and damage’ from climate change are being disproportionately borne by Africans and others who did the least to cause the problems.

Thanks to a Paris provision, Africans have no recourse to claim ‘climate debt’ and polluter liability in lawsuits.  

And there are still no compensation provisions, since the dysfunctional Green Climate Fund did not achieve even five percent of its $100 billion per year objective by 2020, as former US President Obama had promised when selling the Copenhagen Accord to those who were sceptical. And no progress was made to enhance African acquisition of climate-friendly technologies that have long been protected by Intellectual Property.

Groundswell of African climate activism

But while there is paralysis from above, exciting new forms of movement-building from below can be found in Africa. Even the fragmented South African sites of struggle provide a degree of optimism for future unification once they impose substantial pressure on the carbon-addicted government of Cyril Ramaphosa, himself a former coal tycoon.

This mirrors climate justice activism internationally, where the most spectacular new post-Paris movements barely register the UNFCCC as a relevant force. Instead, these activists are committed to direct actions that block high-C02 activities and corporate polluters, for example, Extinction Rebellion and the indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock in South Dakota. 

Simultaneously, the younger generation is already explaining to its elders why UN deal-makers and other high-carbon elites should stand aside. Addressing the UN Climate Summit in September, Swedish youth activist, Greta Thunberg, 16, was furious: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”