By Opeyemi Adewale
Abstract: Climate change is an existential hazard that pervades every facet of modern life with devastating outcomes. The Global South has the lowest development indices and the highest climate vulnerability levels in the world: an imbalance that makes it the most susceptible region to climate devastation and risks. This analytical paper explores the importance of climate justice for the Global South, with a specific focus on the African sub-continent and the Sahel region. It discusses the impediments to climate justice and sustainable development in a multipolar world, and also explores potential climate adaptation policies to alleviate the consequences of a warming globe.
The Vulnerability of the Global South
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate vulnerability as the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, that also considers a system’s sensitivity and adaptive capacity.
African countries have some of the highest climate vulnerability quotients in the world according to the ND-GAIN Country Index of Vulnerability.
There are several factors that heighten Africa’s vulnerability. These include:
Africa’s high dependence on climate-sensitive sectors:
Subsistence farming, large pastoral economies and field agriculture are all rain-fed, climate-dependent industries that assist with food security but are highly susceptible to weather and climate vagaries. Water resources, biodiversity, and the ecosystem services they provide which help with food, human health, and species protection also feature high climate change sensitivity, which threatens food security. Due to the heavy reliance on these sectors for food and other resources, impacts to these sectors caused by climate change have a direct influence on the resource value they provide. The agricultural sector is sensitive to rising surface temperatures and varying rainfall and these changes will affect food security on the African continent.
Africa’s low adaptive capacity:
According to the UNDP, the initial climate change adaptation initiatives show good potential for vulnerability reduction; however, long-term sustainability will depend on the region’s prevailing levels of poverty. Africa is a developing continent with a low per capita GDP. This ranges from Burundi’s 238.4 dollars per capita to South Africa’s 6,776.5 dollars per capita. Poor governance, conflicts, lack of infrastructure and colonialism have been cited as reasons for the pervasive poverty on the continent. This means that there are limited resources available for investing in adaptation measures that would strengthen climate resiliency. African countries may be unable to escape the twin grips of climate risks and vulnerabilities.
A lack of climate literacy and awareness:
Climate change literacy in Africa is low. An African think tank conducted a survey between 2016 and 2018 to establish the climate literacy level on the continent. Over 45,000 interviews took place across 34 countries and 40 percent of respondents said they had never heard about climate change. Out of the 58 percent who had heard about climate change, almost half – 48 percent – did not know the cause and believed it was a natural or semi-natural process. While the rate of climate literacy in the Global North exceeds 80 percent, according to the research, about one in four Africans (28%) are fully “climate change literate.” This status designates people climate-change-aware and cognizant of its negative consequences and anthropogenic origins – they know it is generally caused by human activity. Generally, in Africa there is unfamiliarity with climate risks, a lack of adaptive knowledge, and education. This lack of awareness makes climate action harder.
Climate Justice and Climate Change
Climate justice recognizes that climate change affects different groups of people and communities unequally and that those who are least responsible for causing climate change often bear the heaviest burden of its consequences. The principle holds that the lowest contributors to the menace of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions should be the least affected by its impacts and least threatened by its risks. The concept further stipulates, in principle, that those who have the highest climate vulnerability should have a weightier say in how the climate crisis is tackled.
According to a report by Oxfam International, the world’s wealthiest 10 percent produce 50 percent of carbon emissions while the poorest 3.5 billion people account for just a tenth.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) similarly avers that Africa contributes almost nothing to global warming. They state that Africa’s 1.4 billion people – around 17% of the global population – are responsible for less than 3% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing the social, economic and political inequalities that contribute to climate change and its impacts is crucial to achieving climate justice. According to UNICEF, pursuing climate justice means combating social, gender, economic and environmental injustices. Africa is highly vulnerable to the climate crisis. The continent has experienced severe extreme weather events, incessant sea level rise, floods and drought. Climate change has devastating impacts on African lives, economic prosperity and social balance.
This destructive effect is evident in the severity and frequency of floods. In the eighteen years between 2001 to 2018, a total of 676 floods were recorded across the continent. These floods triggered a total damage worth US $6.3 billion. Anthropogenic climate change has caused a 5-season cyclical drought in the Horn of Africa, which has led to massive crop failures and food security crises in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Large-scale loss of food and income has led to food insecurity for 21 million people across the region. In Somalia, the drought has forcefully displaced over 1.3 million people.
Africa’s climate crisis features a fulcrum of injustice. This is primarily due to its low contribution to global emissions and high climate vulnerability. There are several socio-economic and environmental injustices that exacerbate Africa's climate vulnerability.
Poverty and wealth inequality: Large swaths of the African population live in poverty, many on less than a dollar a day. This affects the amount of financial resources available for investment in adaptive climate schemes. Poor communities also lack the resources to cope with extreme weather events, food insecurity, and meager water resources.
Gender inequality: Women disproportionately bear the burden of climate change impacts due to traditional gender roles and local customs in Africa. Women have less access to needed resources; have a greater likelihood to be poor; suffer discrimination and need to walk several kilometers for water in some cases. Climate change widens existing gaps of inequality and can protract gender-based violence.
Environmental degradation: Africa suffers from a sprawling and spreading problem of land and environmental degradation. Activities such as pollution, deforestation, improper agricultural practices and animal poaching deplete natural resources, mar the African landscape and aggravate the impacts of the climate crisis, leaving the population more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These unsustainable practices are frequently reinforced by the prevalent poverty and unchecked exploitation of resources.
Infrastructural and technological inequalities: Many African countries especially those in sub-Saharan Africa face enormous challenges accessing advanced technologies that are accessed with reasonable parity in the Global North. A lack of technological advantage needed for engaging in climate action affects the level and rate of climate adaptation in these vulnerable countries. The construction of climate-resilient infrastructure and the procurement of these technologies are also very expensive. For instance, Canada’s permafrost-degraded infrastructure in the Northwest Territories alone is estimated to cost as much as CAD 230 million (approximately US$ 173 million) for climate adaptation. Zhenjiang is China's archetype for environmental protection. The total cost of building a sponge city in Zhenjiang City, China, is estimated at RMB 2.585 billion (about US$ 360 million) for a project area that covers 22 square km of land and 11.5 square km of water. The city will include the construction of grass swales, artificial wetlands, rain creeks, sponge parks, and drainage pumping stations. For much of the African continent, the implementation of climate-resilient infrastructure is urgent, yet unavailable due to cost or a lack of technological availability.
Multipolarity and its Implications for Climate Justice
Multipolarity is when three or more states or nations have comparable amounts of power distributed among them. This usually implies that no single state or coalition of states can exert dominance within the international system. The current international system is seen, by certain pundits, as a multipolar system. Among the major power poles are nations such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, the United States and an economic bloc like the European Union.
In the wake of World War II, the United States stood as the sole global hegemon in a unipolar world. The end of the war also brought about the creation of multilateral institutions that assist with addressing the complex problems facing the world.
However, the emergence of new global powers such as Russia and China has brought about a decentralization of power and created a nascent order of multipolarity. Multipolarity provides opportunities for multilateral cooperation; conversely, it poses challenges to achieving consensus. It can precipitate geopolitical instability, increase competition, and lead to fragmentation in global governance.
With multipolarity, consensus on global issues like climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions may be more difficult to reach. As a result, countries in the Global South will suffer more from climate-related insecurity due to the high level of vulnerability within the region.
The rise of multipolarity has been accompanied by several explicit indicators. Some of these include:
The decline in the G7's share of global GDP - as of the year 2000, the G7 accounted for 72% of the world’s GDP. They currently, in 2023, have a global GDP share of 30% (IMF 2023).
The rise of China's economy - China’s economy is the second largest in the world and accounts for more than a third of global growth. Its monetary policy has become a major driver of global economic activity.
Furthermore, there is the mounting influence of Brazil, Russia, India, and China on the global stage - the development of a new currency by the BRICS nations could usurp the dollar’s dominance. This rising influence is accelerated by the decline of the United States’ relative power due to a plethora of external wars.
These indicators suggest that the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, with no single country or bloc dominating. This has strong implications for global governance.
Implications for Climate Justice
The implications of multipolarity for climate justice are multifaceted.
Multipolarity creates potential obstacles and geopolitical implications that could hinder the establishment of effective global agreements and actions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These challenges will disproportionately affect the Global South, with the possibility of exacerbating climate-related risk and insecurity.
A multipolar world could lead to more cooperation on climate action when various countries work together to address a common problem. However, the outcome could also be increased competition and conflict over resources, as the inter-country contention for power heightens. This competition could make it more difficult to reach international agreements on climate action leading to the exploitation of some countries.
Multipolarity may generate powerful centrifugal forces within regions which will fracture economic regionalism with dire implications for the Global South. A multipolar world order could lead to increased competition and conflict between different regional powers, which could in turn undermine existing economic regionalism arrangements. Many countries in the Global South rely on economic integration to boost their growth and development. In a multipolar world, there is no single dominant power that can effectively manage and coordinate regional affairs.
This lack of a unipolar authority could result in unwholesome competitiveness between various regional powers. Influence and position would be a currency of high value in this scenario; as such, regional powers would compete to acquire more of each attribute. Furthermore, regional powers may have divergent interests and priorities, which would make consensus more difficult and could lead to the disintegration of existing regional arrangements.
In a multipolar world, policymakers may view climate change through the narrower lens of national security and other parochial interests. This focus could lead to a form of nationalism in climate action where a heavier focus is being placed on climate threats to a single nation alone, rather than as a global threat. In a multipolar world, the scientific agenda would be fractured, which could limit the amount of international cooperation that exists in the field of climate science. Such cooperation gives scientists the liberty to share data and work together to solve complex problems, but will be undermined if countries start to nationalize their observations and computational resources. Therefore, a multipolar policy oversight could result in a loss of scientific progress and a diminished understanding of the planet and its climate.
Climate Justice and Adaptation
It has been suggested in academia that the stalemate on climate action talks and agreement is already a symptom of a wider change occurring in the world, as hegemonic power shifts to the East and South. Multipolarity and the global power shift have made consensus on international climate agreements more difficult. This is because countries bear different historical responsibilities for the climate crisis, have dissimilar developmental levels, and generally have divergent interests and priorities. For instance, developing countries are often concerned about how climate action will impact their economy while wealthy countries are often reluctant to adopt ambitious emissions reduction targets. As the world becomes more multipolar, climate justice is heavily dependent on principles of fairness and equity, increased transparency, strengthened international cooperation and public engagement. Furthermore, innovative climate financing mechanisms can help developing nations with critical climate adaptation.
Climate adaptation techniques include improved early warning systems for extreme weather events, investment in water resources management, innovative agricultural practices, better disaster risk management, new urban planning codes and methods, and ecosystem solutions for flood control.
Opeyemi Adewale holds a Master's degree in architecture and has achieved significant recognition for his work. He was a two-time semi-finalist and finalist in the University of Berkeley Prize for Architectural Design Excellence, showcasing his socially impactful design. His writings have earned him awards, including the Udo Schüklenk Bioethics Competition prize and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Special Prize. His research papers have been presented at conferences organized by prestigious institutions worldwide such as the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, the Liu Institute Network at the University of British Columbia and the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar. His essays cover a wide range of subjects, from architecture and banking to climate change, engineering and politics. His paper, "Our Interconnected Oneness," was published in “Regenerative Learning” an anthology with a foreword by Pope Francis.