Climate change: Hangman of the poor

Climate change affects the world disproportionately and it is developing countries which, though not historically liable for it, have to bear the brunt of its adverse effects. Nnimmo Bassey explains, with particular focus on Africa, the nature of the threats facing countries which are financially and economically ill-equipped to meet them.

THE impact of the climate crisis, which is disproportionately felt by those that have contributed least to the crisis, is undisputed. This is why the concept of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' (CBDR) is seen as a key principle by which climate justice is introduced into the climate debate. This same reasoning led to the creation of the Annex I and non-Annex I categories of nations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in order to have those most implicated in the climate debacle take greater steps or actions to tackle the menace.

Since the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 15) in 2009, the idea of having nations committed to emissions reduction at levels required by science has been sidelined. At COP 21 in Paris last December, leaders set targets for temperature increase of 1.5oC or 'well below' 2oC. We remember that at COP 15, the lead negotiator for the developing-country Group of 77 (G77), Lumumba Di-Aping, denounced the 2oC warming target as 'certain death for Africa'. He also characterised it as a type of 'climate fascism' that was being forced on Africa. He wondered why Africa was asked to sign an agreement that would permit an unacceptable level of warming in exchange for $10 billion, and also being asked to celebrate such a deal.1

At COP 21 the idea of binding emissions reduction targets was totally jettisoned, in a manner that underscores the high level of power play and global dominance by rich industrialised nations which are determined to avoid responsibility for the climate crisis. The Paris Agreement of COP 21 has been applauded by political leaders across the world and celebrated by mainstream media and transnational corporations mostly because it marked the first time nations agreed that action had to be taken to combat climate change. A close examination of the document shows, however, that the real agreement by political leaders was that: while climate change demanded action, they could essentially perpetuate business as usual, without recourse to what science requires. The actions they would take are called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As the name indicates, nations state what they intend to contribute to tackling the looming crisis according to national interests, with the NDCs being subject to review every five years and coming into effect by 2020.

It has turned out that if emissions are reduced at the levels nations have said they would contribute, we will be on track for a global temperature rise far above the 'well below' 2oC target set by COP 21. We should note at this point that the polluting nations are punching far below their weight in terms of emissions reduction while the poorer, vulnerable nations have pledged to do much more than their fair share. That is the classic way of turning justice on its head.

The Paris Agreement is loaded with good intentions that are not backed by commitments to take requisite action. Added to the NDCs, the agreement left a hole through which false solutions such as REDD+, geo-engineering, carbon trading/offsets and other market environmentalism schemes could gain ascendancy. 'Solutions' such as REDD+ (REDD stands for 'reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries') transfer the burden of action to curb global warming to vulnerable forest communities, for example, in ways that further deepen their vulnerability. Meanwhile geo-engineering entails intentional weather modification efforts that essentially put the planetary climate thermostat into the hands of powerful entities that could be governments or corporations. Computer models used to check the impacts of pumping sulphates into the stratosphere, for example, indicate serious implications for nations in the Global South.

Computer modelling in two peer-reviewed scientific papers showed, among other findings, that 'sulphate injections into the [Southern Hemisphere] could increase precipitation in the Sahel region by up to 100 mm/month, but decrease precipitation in the South West [of Africa] by up to 60 mm/month ... Similar results were found regarding NPP [Net Primary Productivity] with an increase in the Sahel region by up to 100% but a decrease in the South West by up to 60% and also in the Magreb area of up to 20%. [The authors also noted that] Brazil could see a decrease in both NPP and precipitation. In a scenario where sulphate is injected into the [Northern Hemisphere], the Sahelian region is subject to reductions in NPP by as much as 60-100% ... The precipitation pattern in the region could be affected by a reduction of 20-80mm/month ... In this scenario, Southern Africa could see increases in both NPP and precipitation.'2

Urgent actions are needed and they must not be such as would create more problems for the poorest. One of the factors that hamper climate action is finance. It must be stated here that if the ecological or climate debt owed the Global South were recognised and paid, there will be no debate about who contributes how much, and who can access, climate funds. The debates always tend to suggest that finding needed finance is a herculean task; meanwhile enough funds that could make a huge difference are stashed away in tax havens by a handful of individuals and corporations. A recent report by Friends of the Earth International shows that 13 richest persons in the world have enough money to provide renewable energy to all of Africa within 15 years, for instance. Meanwhile the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative is looking for $10 billion between 2015 and 2020 to tackle energy poverty on the continent. In terms of the Green Climate Fund, the target is $100 billion per year from 2020. Meanwhile, the rich nations are spending over $1 trillion a year on destructive military hardware and warfare. The point is that the money is there; what is lacking is commitment to face the planetary crisis.

What are the implications of this lack of commitment and readiness to act?

The world is currently enamoured with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a fitting successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If sustainable development is to be attainable and not an oxymoron, we must become conscious of the fact that the very concept of lineal development or growth is an impossibility on a finite planet. The targets or goals will remain mere pipedreams in a climate-changed world.  For the goals to be met, tackling global warming cannot be based on nationally determined contributions.

The casualties of climate change are many. They include those whose nations, territories and communities are being washed away by rising sea levels, floods and coastal erosion. They include those whose lands are suffering desertification. There are casualties braving deserts, seas and oceans to find a foothold on higher lands.

A major area of vulnerability is agriculture and food production. Real climate actions are needed to build resilience into agricultural systems before catastrophic climate change sets in. The 1996 World Food Summit declared that 'Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.'3 This indicates that food security must rest on four pillars: availability of food, accessibility to food, suitable utilisation of food, and the presence of these three in a stable way. When hazards meet vulnerability, the inevitable outcome is disaster. No hazard is more pressing globally than climate change.

Some 80% of the food in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is produced by smallholder or family farms.4 They depend on natural resources such as forests and shrub lands for their livelihoods as farmers and pastoralists. They also depend on rivers, lakes and creeks for fish. The tragedy is that governments seldom think of the smallholder farmer when they think of agriculture. They think more of industrial agriculture which utilises chemical inputs with heavy dependence on fossil fuels. Apart from the concomitant land grabs, displacement of smallholder farmers, and destruction of food systems and ecosystems, industrial agriculture, including cash cropping through plantations, exacerbates climate change.

Besides the threat to food security, there is a greater risk to food sovereignty. Understanding the difference between food sovereignty and food security is important for us to grasp the grave impact that climate change has on agriculture and nutrition. Food sovereignty speaks of the right of peoples to grow crops and produce foods that are healthy, suit their ecosystems and are culturally appropriate. Food security, in comparison, is concerned with having food in sufficient quantities. These two concepts are not opposed to one another, but rather food security is best secured in the context of food sovereignty. What does this mean?

With a simple focus on food security, it does not matter what food a person eats, provided she eats something. The food could be totally alien to the individual, but to erase hunger, whatever food is available has to be consumed. Mere food security eliminates choice and forces people, for example, to eat genetically modified (GM) foods, even when they are opposed to the technology. This was the sore point that Zambia was confronted with when the country faced food shortages in 2002.5 At that time Zambia insisted on being given milled and not whole grain GM maize to avoid contamination of indigenous species. The struggle over what food to receive or reject became a source of big debates and geopolitical power play. A major newspaper in the country, the Zambia Daily Mail, had this to say: 'It is very interesting to note that for the first time Zambia was being forced to accept a gift. Doesn't this worry us as recipients, that the giver is insisting that we take the GM foods? Are the Americans just concerned about our stomachs or there is something behind the gift?'6

Increasing temperatures and freak weather events are bound to have profound impacts on agricultural systems. The magnitude of these impacts would determine how the remaining carbon budget is managed or expended. The race to colonise the atmosphere is on and will likely intensify with nations making voluntary pledges to cut emissions. The implication of such voluntary pledges and actions is that sufficient resilience will not be built into our food and infrastructural systems. That translates to the harsh fact that vulnerable nations and regions will be incapable of coping with resulting loss and damage.

El Nino, La Nina and desert locusts

El Nino is a weather pattern which happens as a result of the warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator, off the coast of South America. It occurs when trade winds off the Pacific coast of South America weaken, or at times reverse, letting the warm water of the western Pacific flow instead towards the east. This change sets off atmospheric changes triggered by the warm water displacing the cooler water that is normally found near the surface of the eastern Pacific. This abnormal weather situation sets in motion altered weather events in many parts of the world. It occurs every 2-7 years and does not have a regular pattern.7 This recurring cycle thus goes with variations in sea-surface temperatures, convective rainfall, surface air pressure and atmospheric circulation across the equatorial Pacific Ocean.  The opposite to this is called La Nina.

A minimum 0.5oC temperature increase has to occur in the waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator for it to be considered an El Nino year. It is not clear how these phenomena will change in the age of climate change, but the associated precipitation variability on regional scales is likely to increase due to larger moisture availability in the atmosphere.8 With heightened unpredictability in precipitation as well as the cyclic occurrence of the El Nino and La Nina phenomena, it is obvious that food systems will come under greater stress and plans must be made to absorb or cope with the shocks.

One cause to worry about these changes in temperature, rainfall and wind patterns associated with climate change is the effect they may have on the desert locust in Africa. The land mass from West Africa to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and southwest Asia will be particularly exposed to the impacts of this highly destructive migratory pest. Warmer temperatures and increased rainfall in desert areas cause the locust to mature sooner and have a shorter lifecycle; the breeding season begins earlier than normal and continues beyond the usual. It is expected that with a combination of a general increase in precipitation, higher rainfall events and tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, locust numbers may increase more rapidly and, if not adequately controlled, may become plagues.

Water stress

The quantity and pattern of rainfall affect the availability of water. Already we are seeing a significant shrinkage of a water body such as Lake Chad. Others like Lake Turkana are under threat from proposed dams and other factors. Lake Chad, located at the intersection of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, has shrunk from over 25,000 square kilometres in the early 1960s to less than 2,000 square kilometres. This has led to the displacement of farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolks. The resultant loss of livelihood is seen to be contributing to the violence in northeast Nigeria as well as in the country's Middle Belt region where violent conflicts between herdsmen and farmers flare up frequently.

Water wars or conflicts will likely intensify as freshwater systems get salinised through sea level rise and incursion of seawater. It has been estimated that by 2030 climate-related conflicts will rise by 54% in Africa. This could be directly linked with the availability of water. Overall, it is estimated that by 2020 up to 75-250 million people in Africa will face water stress. Changes in rainfall patterns will affect the distribution and health of wetlands, streams and rivers. When rainfall is reduced in arid and semi-arid areas, serious water stress is experienced, while other regions may have increased rainfall and be confronted with new challenges on how to cope with floods.

Biodiversity changes

Climate change and rising temperatures affect ecosystems in many ways. One vital way is through the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. It is estimated that up to 90 million more people in Africa will by 2030 be exposed to malaria, already the biggest killer in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to weather variations.

There are also effects on beneficial insects and birds, including those that help in the process of pollination. Pests and invasive and alien species can have direct impacts on livestock and general food production. For livestock, temperature variations affect the animals directly. It is projected that diseases such as West Nile virus, bluetongue or Lyme and schistosomiasis (bilharzia) may expand into new areas. Increased rainfall and flooding due to El Nino has also been implicated in outbreaks of Rift Valley fever in East Africa.

Increases in pest infestation which result in health issues and loss of forages and water sources create more challenges. The changes in crop and livestock productivity would have implications for availability and accessibility to food, which could instigate disaffection and riots. These impacts will also be reflected in existing geographical variations in ways that could see increased productivity in some regions and reduction in others. Climate change can easily lead to the erosion of genetic resources, including crop, animal and fish species.

Reduced rainfall and shrinking water bodies affect the presence and diversity of riverine fisheries. Assessments by researchers report that the impacts of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture will be felt most acutely in Africa and South Asia.9

Climate impacts on forests directly translate to livelihood challenges for the estimated 1.6 billion people who depend on forests for livelihoods. Forests provide timber and non-timber products, and protect water sources and soils. Forests are vulnerable to droughts and increased temperatures. Climate impacts will include loss of forest biodiversity through tree mortality, fire outbreaks and human pressures.

Human pressure includes conversion of forests into plantations, with the accompanying loss of biodiversity. It also includes the pursuit of infrastructural development such as roads through forests. A current case in point is a proposed superhighway that threatens to erode community forests as well as a major forest reserve in Cross River State in Nigeria. The sore point with the proposed highway is that the government revoked occupancy rights of communities within a 10 km stretch on either side of the highway. By estimates, the highway and the lands girding it would take up 25% of the landmass of Cross River State. Analysts insist that the superhighway can easily be re-routed to preserve the communities as well as enormous biodiversity which includes rare and endangered species. It is also noted that the highway will lead to massive deforestation with grave climate change implications.

The 260 km road is planned to lead from a proposed deep sea port at Esighi in Bakassi Local Government Area through the Cross River National Park and up to Katsina Ala in Benue State, at a cost of 700 billion naira or about $3.5 billion. Observers think the project may be a cover for land grabbing, illegal logging and poaching and the destruction of habitats in the forests and reserves that are protected by law and preserved by custom. They question why a project of this nature would reportedly enjoy contributions from Nigerian banks without requisite preliminary surveys, plans and approvals.10

Climate injustice and sundry impacts

The climate impacts we have discussed thus far illustrate inherent injustices: the poor and the vulnerable are the ones mostly at risk. Poor levels of social investment leave the poor vulnerable and without protection as unpredictable weather events manifest. They are the most hit by food losses, sicknesses, infrastructure destruction, droughts, floods and water stress. They are poor, and climate change makes them poorer still. They are the ones expected to take real climate action, like protecting their forests, yet they are the last to be compensated when the booty of market environmentalism (through the commodification of nature) is to be shared. Within this scenario lies also hidden gender injustice exacerbated by imposed gender roles, oppression and patriarchy.

There were serious floods in various African countries in 2012. As we write this, there are warnings to communities in the flood plains of the Benue and Niger rivers to brace themselves for heavier floods this year. The floods of 2012 displaced 530,000 people in Niger between July and September, while six million were displaced with over 300 deaths in Nigeria. Thousands more were displaced in Mali, Kenya, Uganda, Chad, South Africa, Mozambique, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mauritania and others.11 Flooding cost Mozambique a whopping $550 million in 2000 and lowered the national gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.5%. For Nigeria, the 2012 floods brought a 0.36% drop in GDP.

With a 2oC warming above pre-industrial temperatures, it is estimated that there could be permanent reductions in per capita food consumption of 4-5 %. With current trends in temperature increase, about 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa's arable land may become much less suitable for farming by 2080.

A paradigm shift from a one-dimensional characterisation of responsibility and suffering to dimensions of fairness and justice is necessary to move beyond the impasse in international climate negotiations and improve national-level policy-making. The inequalities which are associated with human-induced elements, unequal distribution of impacts, unequal responsibility for and disproportionate cost of climate change mitigation and adaptation have shaped vulnerability and capacities for adaptation.  There should be a shift from a simple dual classification of winners and losers derived from locations in sensitive biophysical systems to include political, economic and social determinants of vulnerability and adaptation capabilities.

Nnimmo Bassey is Director of the Nigeria-based ecological think-tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation and Coordinator of Oilwatch International. He chairs the board of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria and is a former chair of Friends of the Earth International. He is the author of To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa (Pambazuka Press, 2012). He was a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize') in 2010.


1                    Patrick Bond (2012). Politics of Climate Justice.

2                    ETC Group (2014). Geoengineering and Climate Change - Implications for Africa.

3                    World Food Summit (1996).

4                    UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (2008). Food Security Concepts and Frameworks - What Is Food Security? Learner's Notes.

5                    Friends of the Earth International (2003). Playing with Hunger. FoEI, Amsterdam.

6                    Zambia Daily Mail, 5 November 2002. Quoted in Friends of the Earth International (2003).

7           What is El Nino?

8                    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013). Projections of Long Term Climate Change: Regional Changes and the Atlas. Accessed at

9                    E H Allison et al. (2009). Vulnerability of national economies to the impacts of climate change on fisheries. Fish and Fisheries, 10(2): 173-196.

10                Nnimmo Bassey (2016). Halt the assault on the Ekuri community and other forests.

11                See for more details.

*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 17-20