Universalizing the Discourse on Climate Change

Many responses to climate change go hand in hand with revitalizing the idea that "the West is the universal norm". How can we (in "the West") become attuned to other conversations on global warming and other forms of communal rationality that can guide us out of the climate crisis? In this MORE WORLD interview, the South Sudanese-American policy consultant Abiol Lual Deng is looking for answers.

Abiol Lual Deng at the launch of "Fugitive Belonging" © Andi Weiland/berlinergazette.de CC BY 4.0 Abiol Lual Deng at the launch of "Fugitive Belonging" © Andi Weiland/berlinergazette.de CC BY 4.0

Krystian Woznicki: Talking about climate change: What is interesting for us is that this planetary issue is experienced and reflected differently all over the world. How does this play out in the US, Europe and Africa?

Abiol Lual Deng: For the last ten years I’ve worked in various roles in the humanitarian, development and public policy sectors in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in the US and Europe. Hence most of my interest and involvement exploring planetary issues and challenges, including climate change, has been centered on how such questions manifest themselves in sub-Saharan Africa and the Global South at large. While climate change is certainly a major political and social question in the West, it disproportionately affects the global South, and the African continent in particular. Addressing this imbalance and ensuring equitable access to environmental resources, as well as economic development and human rights for all is the essential goal of the climate justice movement.

However, I find it encouraging that there is heightened awareness of how we are all connected to planetary challenges, including climate change, no matter where we live. Fifteen years ago the level of interconnectivity between what happened in Africa to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the rest of the world was not as well explored – beyond a growing focus on global terror. Now there is a growing consensus that major issues have global drivers and consequences too and climate change is seen as one of the most pressing issues of our day worldwide. Still, the progress made to provide an international solution to this phenomenon is being halted by the rise of populism compounded by inaction in the west. As the US, Great Britain and other rich countries turn inward, global response becomes fragmented and less effective.

I think it’s important to point out that it’s not a coincidence that climate change denial is a major tenant of right-wing populist movements. The assumption is often that this is due to business over the environment, anti-intellectualism, or antiquated concepts of national sovereignty. Perhaps we also need to deeply consider that climate change denial is also rooted in the desire to limit human rights and deny equity to people from the Global South.

KW: How exactly has the public debate around global warming changed in recent years?

ALD: When Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, he also backtracked the public debate around climate change. As with all things said or done by Trump, this step backwards inadvertently led to a flurry of narratives that revolve around fact checking. In the US, scientists and experts are forced to reaffirm climate change realities rather than focusing on the modus operandi of climate change action. Even among the countries that are still a party to the Paris Agreement, few have met their climate targets or begun their implementation.

Additionally, the climate finance mechanisms of the agreement, which were a first step for climate justice, have yet to be properly developed and were heavily dependent on American financing. We are essentially at a moment of impasse. Rich countries are reluctant to take serious long term action and poorer countries are unwilling to do so without the funds to help them transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In other words, the future for climate justice looks bleak.

KW: For people living in the global North, the impact of climate change is still mainly in the form of scenarios, predictions, whereas the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa is different...

ALD: It’s important to examine Africa because among the populated continents, it is the one with the smallest carbon footprint, contributing only 3.8% of global greenhouse emissions when compared with 19 percent for the United States and 13% for the European Union. (Read more about this in the article by Amadou Sy) Yet the effects of climate change on the African continent, such as flooding, desertification, drought and the decrease in fresh water sources, have had devastating results. Furthermore, if we observe conflicts in Africa, such as those in the Sahel, we can identify climate change as one of the leading factors exacerbating violence and insecurity. Lake Chad, once one of the largest freshwater lakes in Africa and an integral part of the Sahelian ecosystem, has shrunk over 90% since the 1960s largely due to climate change.

The UN Special Adviser on the Sahel, Ibrahim Thiaw, described the region as “arguably one of the most vulnerable to climate change with (most likely) the largest number of people disproportionately affected by global warming.” Additionally, we observe a rise in displacement and migration from this zone. In 2018, 20% of migrants crossing the Mediterranean by land and sea were from two Sahelian countries alone (Guinea and Mali). Could it be that Welzer’s climate wars and resulting climate refugees are already here?

Similarly to another planetary issue, that of global terror, climate change discussions are still largely framed around western preoccupations. A recurring theme in climate change rhetoric is the prospect of climate change refugees arriving in droves from poor countries to rich ones. This despite the fact that those affected by climate change disasters tend to migrate within their countries or regions. In Africa, 80% of migrants who go abroad head to other African countries, but it is the rise in Africans crossing the Mediterranean which provokes global anxiety. Populist parties throughout the west have been particularly successful in stoking fears of “invasion” from poorer countries. Likewise, the vast majority of funding and research surrounding the migration question in Africa, including the impact of climate change, is on that which leads to European countries.

Therein lies the risk that rather than a movement to ensure all people have rights to environmental resources, we devolve into one which seeks to prevent poorer people from either migrating or further damaging the environment. Former president Barack Obama stated in 2013 that “if everybody is raising living standards (in Africa) to the point where everybody has got a car and everybody has got air conditioning, and everybody has got a big house, well, the planet will boil over -- unless we find new ways of producing energy.” While this is undoubtedly true, one can’t help but notice that such statements betray a belief that Africans can’t be allowed to live the way that westerners do now.

KW: Do you see any communal practices emerging within the migration-climate change-complex – as an active or passive response to that complex?

ALD: Interestingly though in the protests of Swedish student Greta Thunberg we are perhaps witnessing the beginning of a significant grassroots movement to push for climate justice with true international potential. With her “enough already” approach, Thunberg correctly focuses on pressuring political decision makers to take action and to take it now. Rather than recycling mantras which tend to individualize climate change action into things like separating trash, going vegan, and using public transport, Thunberg’s approach is deeply rooted in pro-active climate justice. Thunberg is not just “thinking globally, acting locally”, she is also pushing for us to “act globally” as well. Notably, she challenges the self-congratulatory mode of European countries such as her native Sweden with their ambitious targets that have not always materialized. Thunberg thus insists that climate change action is a key issue of governance. As such, it is this aspect of her movement which has the best possibility to be “franchised” and adapted to the Global South and Africa in particular. Still perhaps the most important aspect of her movement is the reiteration that it is the responsibility of rich countries to take action given their historical responsibility for much of climate change.

In today’s world when we discuss climate change, given the inaction in much of Europe and downright denial in the US, there is need to insist on the human rights aspect of the issue. Global climate change action must indeed be rooted as much in focus on the rights of those in the Global South as in western responsibilities and realities. However, this is not to imply that Africans are not and have not been working to fight or prevent the effects of climate change. There are also various donor funded projects, such as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative, which are aiming at fighting climate change with varying degrees of efficacity. Notably, migration prevention is one of the main motivations for the Great Green Wall. Perhaps the solution to rights based approaches to climate justice must come from Africans themselves at a grassroots level with international support for good governance which recognizes those rights?

One successful example of a grassroots initiative is the Green Belt Movement begun by the late Kenyan activist and Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai. One of the oldest climate justice movements in Africa, it has connected climate change action to pacifist and feminist movements from its inception. Founded in 1977, the Movement “advocates for human rights, good governance, and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment.” Without responsible governance, no rights-based movement can succeed in making real change. Thus climate change finance mechanisms alone cannot provide climate justice in Africa. Additionally, climate change programs aimed at preventing migration that do not seek to right the disparities behind climate change cannot lead to climate justice.

KW: In this context: What is the difference between rural and urban situations?

ALD: There are so many ways to look at the differences between rural and urban yet if we look at this from an African perspective we might find alternative ways to examine these two spaces.

Firstly, Africa is both the least urbanized and the most rapidly urbanizing continent. At the moment the majority on the continent reside in rural settings, but by 2050, the population is projected to be 2/3 urban. The main economic activity of rural populations is subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry.

These areas are characterized not only by low income but also a lack of specialized jobs. Basic transportation is sparse and it often takes several days to link between rural areas, with most people walking to collect resources and obtain the few services there are. Social protection, particularly health and education is severely limited and a large amount of rural populations in Africa do not have access to either. Urban populations likewise have social protection issues, given the great numbers of the urban population living in inadequate shelter with limited access to resources. While informal and formal jobs are a main reason for which populations move to urban areas, lack of specialization and limited transportation combine to limit their productivity and ability to earn adequate salaries. Thus it’s almost as if the difference between rural and urban is a question of which protection issue one is faced with.

Watch Abiol Lual Deng’s MORE WORLD video statement here: https://vimeo.com/315625540

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About Abiol Lual Deng

Abiol Lual Deng is a South Sudanese-American international relations and policy consultant with over ten years of experience in humanitarian policy, international relations, and government relations on three continents. Her work has varied from working as the Director of Development for the French Consulate in New York to various positions with international organizations and NGOs such as the ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières in conflict and post-conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa. Her focal points include humanitarian policy, social media use in the dissemination of hate speech, and the politics and culture of contemporary France and Francophone Africa. Abiol Lual Deng is a graduate of the University of Virginia (BA) and the Université de Paris-Sorbonne (M.Phil, Hons). She is based in both, Berlin and Washington, DC. She tweets under: https://twitter.com/AbiolDeng.

This interview has been conducted in cooperation with Magdalena Taube.

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