The World Failed Africa, But Africa Didn’t Fail the World
I admire Greta Thunberg, but part of the reason she makes headlines is as much a product of who she is as what she says. So while I respect her decision to boycott COP27 – the African COP, that decision is still unfortunate – after all, not all activists are that privileged.
When the Global South skips out on a conference, individually or governmentally, few in the Global North notice. However after this year’s COP27 held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt — a “city of peace” — I don’t think we’ll ever dare overlook voices from the Global South again. Holding COP27 in the world’s most populous Arab nation, and one of the biggest Muslim and African nations, was a win.
At Glasgow’s COP26, very few African climate activists were present. That time round, restrictions included funding, onerous processes to gain accreditation, and not to mention COVID-19 vaccination status of which only five percent of Africans had access to vaccines. It’s hard to underscore how fundamentally unfair, and in fact ridiculous this sin of omission was.
It’s not just because Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent or that more and more people, in decades to come, will live in the Global South, it’s worse. Just to make it through the climate crisis, it’s estimated the Global South will need $2 trillion per year. Specifically, the African Development Bank suggests it’ll take $1.2 trillion just by 2030 for Africa only to mitigate climate challenges.
How is this even fair? Africa only causes four percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but of all continents, it’s the most vulnerable to our deteriorating climate. Already, up to 15% of economic growth is being lost to climate impacts; by the end of the century, that will mean a mind-boggling two-thirds of overall economic output will be lost to climate change.
In the last four decades, drought zones have nearly doubled. An African dies of hunger every minute. This is not sustainable, reasonable or even human. Nearly half of all youth in the region are rethinking having children. Climate-related conflict is on the rise across Africa, and what destabilizes Africa will destabilize the world.
The need for Africa to have been meaningfully and robustly present for this conversation was obvious. However, European nations made significant moves towards climate justice, beginning to pay for the harm they’ve done to the wider world. It’s a small start, but a start all the same.
China moved tepidly in the same direction, and even though the United States is limited in its options here (though that does not excuse America’s enormous culpability), President Biden seemed to acknowledge as much by at least attending in person. For the first time, the conversation on climate justice is moving (slowly) in the right direction. That this came in Africa can’t be coincidental.
The question however is: How do we capitalize on, build on and expand this seeming progress? Perhaps by understanding why it’s so important to listen to Africa, to Africans and to the underrepresented voices in the world. We’ve gone a long way towards climate justice, but there is so much longer to go. The world must think seriously about what it will take to get where we all need to be. Or put it this way: Greta Thunberg once called autism her “superpower.” Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate said the same — of her faith.
While in America, Gen Z is the least religious generation yet, Africa is home to some of the world’s largest and fastest-growing Christian and Muslim populations. In much of the Global South and in many parts of the developed world too, faith is still a major driving force and consideration for sustainable development.
Part of this is because Africa has long used spiritual totem’s – a system which associates animals with kinship and community structures, and has undoubtedly contributed to Africa’s robust wildlife and conservation efforts. This has made it easier to leverage faith in environmental conversations and considerations.
Indeed, if we want to grow in the right direction, sustainably, responsibly, inclusively and meaningfully, we should consider what will motivate the world to work together. What can inspire us to connect and to sacrifice for one another? Faith isn’t the only way to do that, but it is one of the best ones. And we have ample evidence of related successes around us.
An initiative recently launched at COP27 by the Climate Heritage Network sees culture as an invaluable asset to strengthen the communities’ transformative change. Across the African continent, cultural and traditional leaders are the custodians of the unique knowledge on the natural resources their communities possess — from conservationism to heritage — yet they rarely get a say in policies affecting their communities’ climate resilience. Africa’s Kingdoms are not of ancient. There are still today Kingdoms with Kings and Queens operating in this Wakanda-like existence and yet their role differs greatly from their European counterparts. You see to their people, the King or Queen has faith representation within their cultural and spiritual leadership, no matter their religious beliefs.
Africa’s youngest monarch, the King of Tooro Kingdom Oyo Nyimba, has long done the same, using his ties to the Anglican Church to bridge relationships with the traditional clan leaders to progress climate action and sustainable development amongst Ugandan communities.
These examples represent the kind of cross-cultural, multi-faith and international collaboration that climate resilience and justice will require. And the progress is being led from the Global South, reaching out to the Global North — mirroring some of the major impacts COP27 achieved. That’s a lesson the world should heed.
Excluding voices in climate negotiations doesn’t advance progress, and including voices creates new opportunities for our collective welfare. It’s been said countless times before, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We are all in this together.
Camilla Barungi is a New York-based model, entrepreneur, and social innovator with a special interest in Pan-Africanism, sustainability, fashion, emerging technologies, and film.