The climate change discourse has been fraught with denialism and a constant shifting of responsibility. Meanwhile, countries of the Global South have found themselves feeling the brunt of its impacts. While the Global North has historically contributed more to emissions, the asymmetric impact that catastrophic climatic events have had and will have on the Global South have made it critical to make greater advancements on a climate change agenda that addresses our specific challenges and needs.
Recent incidents tied to climate change have once again reinforced the need for countries like South Africa to both fully comprehend the challenges that this poses, while also enacting more ambitious, bold and immediate actions which this moment calls for. Recent examples that demonstrate the impact of the climate crisis includes the drought that affected parts of the Eastern Cape and Free State in 2019, the shared water crisis in Cape Town and Gqeberha as well as the recent devastating floods that led to much destruction in the province of KwaZulu- Natal – all of which have shown how poor communities are always at the coal face of the devastating impacts of climate change. Such events have served to make a far-fetched and seemingly far-off theoretical concept, into a real time crisis affecting the most vulnerable communities.
The need for urgent change not only holds true for South Africa but for the African continent, who have also had to stomach the harsh reality of climate change. The State of the Climate in Africa 2021 report notes that despite Africa accounting for only about 2 to 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it suffers disproportionately from it. For example, in East Africa, drought has worsened as a result of consecutive failed rainy seasons and in many parts of Northern Africa, extreme heat has resulted in countless wildfires that have destroyed vegetation and arable farmland. Simultaneously, reports allude to how by 2030 between 108-116 million people in Africa are expected to be exposed to the risk of increasing sea levels, which is also a long-standing concern for Island States who are particularly vulnerable given their geography. Conservative estimates indicate that by 2030 four out of five African countries are unlikely to have sustainably managed water resources, a situation that is likely to get worse if we continue on the same trajectory.
As we look towards developing and leading a climate change agenda that speaks to the challenges and realties of the Global South, it is imperative to position responsibility alongside opportunity. The expectation is for the responsibility to rest with those that are deemed to be the highest historical emitters, however, there is also an opportunity to look at this moment differently by locating the Global South as those that stand to benefit the most from mitigation and adaptation strategies.
As a continent, Africa’s development needs should be driven on the premise of current socio-economic conditions. Granted, there is an understanding that development cannot be delinked from climate, but perhaps herein lies the opportunity - an opportunity for Africa to pursue development tied to the ever-changing climatic conditions. The green economy presents opportunities for us to be intentional about creating pathways for sustainable development, which facilitates longer term growth for the continent. In other words, it presents us with opportunities to facilitate sustainable job creation and food production as well as universal access to nutrition. On the question of responsibility, it should be expected that historically high emitters should provide financial resources to support the cost of adaptation, technology, and mitigation for their less affluent counterparts.
In shaping a Global South agenda for climate change, it is imperative that we engage in meaningful dialogue across all spheres, from grassroots to multinational entities such as BRICS, on matters pertaining to the effects of climate change. Some of the questions we need to wrestle with is how climate change affects the ability of poor families to grow food, the effects it has on water and air quality, and how it can impact health and wellbeing amongst other things. We also need to be clear on how changing climatic conditions affect the social make-up of communities that are dependent on land for sustenance.
These are all questions we need to grapple with before we can even begin thinking of pursuing a green agenda tied to just transition expectations. As a continent and countries of the Global South, we find ourselves in a tough but opportune moment to pursue climate change mitigation strategies that are aligned with the ideals of transformation and harnessing the greatest asset we have at our disposal - the natural environment.
Sylvia Graham is a Mandela Day Analyst at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Her current research interests include participatory community development within the frame of the intersection that exists between climate change and food security.
Qhamani Neza Tshazi is a Dialogue and Advocacy Analyst at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and a PhD Candidate in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Stellenbosch. His current research interests include concepts of shared citizen power, the right to the city and equitable access to resources by all citizens.