Elements of change: Climate and conflict in Africa

Climate change is a global phenomenon that affects all life on earth. For the first time ever, the entire planet is undergoing a singular climatic transformation. Globally, land has already warmed 1.5°C and, owing to past greenhouse gas emissions and inertia in the climate system, the earth and its atmosphere will continue to warm until around mid-century, even if all emissions stopped today. Unprecedented heatwaves, food shortages and extreme storms will likely hit us before 2030 and intensify with further warming.

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    Projections for Africa are dire

    The immediate gravity of climate change varies dramatically across the world. For people unable to employ any of the strategies previously used, be it moving north, turning up the air conditioning or bracing their homes for hurricane winds, this is a life-threatening prognosis. In general, those who are most vulnerable to climate change are people who are very poor or in conflict-affected environments and physically exposed to droughts, cyclones, rising sea levels or other impacts.

    Africa is home to more than half of the global extremely poor population, many of whom depend on rain-fed agriculture and endure some of the hottest climates on earth. This population is projected to grow from the current estimated 460 million to nearly 600 million people by 2040, before beginning to decline, according to the International Futures (IFs) modelling platform housed at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures of the University of Denver.

    Projections of further climate impacts in Africa are dire. Although a climatically diverse continent, home to the expansive rainforests of the Congo Basin and the snowy peaks of the Drakensberg mountains, most of the continent is hot and dry. Temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average, and most of the continent will continue to become more arid, although Central and Eastern Africa will experience heavier rainfall, especially after mid-century.

    By undermining the food and water security of many vulnerable populations in Africa (and elsewhere in the world), climate change has already added a frightening and unpredictable element to conflict. Although the frequency and intensity of conflicts in Africa have been easing for decades, the spectre of resource scarcity looms large.

    The climate–conflict nexus

    That climate shocks and resource scarcity provoke conflicts – be they civil or international – seems an intuitive conclusion. This narrative has seen studies blaming rising temperatures for Africa’s civil conflicts and drought for Syria’s civil war.

    But, the nuanced and growing literature on the relationship between climate change and conflict makes two points clear. First, there is insufficient evidence to prove that climate change directly causes conflict. In fact, Africa’s civil conflicts over the past half-century show no clear correlation with climatic conditions. Evidence points instead to the usual structural culprits: politicised marginalisation of certain ethnic groups and poor governance and economic performance. These socio-economic dynamics are far more robust drivers of conflict than any climatic phenomenon, no matter how disruptive.

    Second, the argument that climate change has caused the world’s conflicts is not only incorrect, but inadvertently absolves those actually responsible. Let us not use this line of reasoning to help the culpable governments, organisations and individuals shirk their responsibility for the suffering people have endured.

    However, these findings do not negate the impacts of climate change on the nature and intensity of conflicts. Diminishing water resources, hotter temperatures, droughts and storms are threatening the systems of cooperation and ecological services that people everywhere depend on to survive.

    Caring better for our ecosystems

    We have to care better for our ecosystems to minimise the threat that climate-related conflict poses to vulnerable populations. A large and growing number of studies showcase the astonishing success of ecosystem-based strategies to sustainably provide food, water and income security while building resilience for the future.

    Often termed “ecosystem-based” or “farmer-managed natural regeneration”, these approaches recover and sustain ecosystems vital to human life. This idea is so simple it seems obvious, but apparently this is far from true. In many of the worst cases of desertification, decades, if not centuries, of razing land for cash crops has rendered barren previously resilient landscapes.

    Ecosystem-based strategies are flourishing in the Sahel, the semi-arid belt that hugs the southern border of the Sahara Desert and stretches from Senegal to Eritrea. Thanks to geographic realities, people living in the Sahel suffer temperatures 50% higher than the global average and will experience unprecedented climates before anyone else on earth. Yet, Sahel farmers and herders’ traditional practice of growing endemic tree species has produced extensive parks of baobab, winter thorn and shea butter trees in some of the previously most degraded landscapes on the planet.

    In southern Niger, farmers have been regenerating certain tree species for nearly half a century. More than five million hectares is now covered with trees and, below them, crops. Thanks to the crops, wood and strengthened local governance offered by this system, the communities of this regreened region coped far better with the 2005 famine than other areas of Niger. Importantly, resident communities developed each strategy with careful regard for local environmental, social and political dynamics.

    The way forward

    Caring for ecosystems better is the key to creating a sustainable relationship between people and the ecosystem services we need to survive. As the climate continues to warm, the strength of this relationship will increasingly become the deciding factor between peace and conflict among vulnerable populations in Africa and elsewhere.

    Protecting shrub lands, forests, peatlands, wetlands and other ecosystems also has the dual purpose of mitigating further climate change. These ecosystems not only absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, but also guard against soil degradation, erosion and other destructive phenomena.

    And this will be necessary, as the responsibility of the governments of developing countries in Africa and elsewhere to mitigate climate change will continue to expand. Growing populations and rising incomes mean increased demand for energy, which in all too many cases will mean doubling down on the (usually) most viable solution: fossil fuels. By 2050, Africa’s energy demand is projected to match that of Latin America and the Caribbean. Fortunately, the cost of importing technology seems set to decline in the coming years, which may make renewable energy the best way to meet immediate development needs while mitigating future climate change.

    In the meantime, whether the planet remains suitable for life after 2050 depends on world leaders. Major international governing bodies and the governments of the United States, China, India and other highly industrialised countries must collaborate to cut greenhouse gas emissions now. There is no other way.

    About the author
    Lily Welborn is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

    Read the full magazine issue

    The complex link between climate change and conflict – Volume 8, Issue 4 (Autumn 2019)
    Why are climate change and conflict intrinsically linked? In the autumn edition of our Great Insights magazine, contributors from across Africa and Europe answer these questions – and more.
    31 October 2019
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