Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Africa

Discourses on climate change and sustainable development in Africa have been hijacked with terminology such as ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ that need to be questioned.

From the cradle man to the funerary home of his grandfather, the African continent is the object of old-school derision.

The political constellations often seem to favor sub-Saharan Africa - it always reserves its place in the sinecure of depravity and hopelessness - much in the same way the Middle East does as playground of the intolerant and unhinged.

The sustainability discourse, which has its modern roots in the environmental movement of the later 20th century but can first be traced to a British forestry report from the 17th century, long focused on the developing world’s inability to harmonize the needs of man with those of Mother Nature as a whole.

But for reasons relating to the romanticization of African rural life and a perception that the people of the continent are far behind those living elsewhere (and therefore the curve), the relatively newer development obsession - climate change mitigation and especially adaptation - has taken the day.

The recent 19th meeting of the United Nations climate change conference hasn’t changed this discourse, even if large scale, international efforts died a horrible death after the Copenhagen talks of 2009, and then again dramatically in Durban in 2011.

A step back for the moment. Without question, climate change (CC) is a very real concern for the humanity and all things it holds dear, including its social constructions, like ‘the environment,’ ‘Nature,’ and the ‘natural world.’

I therefore take issue with some authors on this site who have pointed to CC as nothing more than a neoliberal construction meant to limit the capacity of workers and social movements of the poor and oppressed to achieve their fullest potential.

It is true that multinationals and their handmaidens in government, not to mention surrogates in the large NGO community (as Naomi Klein helpfully points out here, have turned talking about, and scarcely dealing with, CC into a plank in normal business options.

In some sense, from corporate social responsibility to sustainability guidelines, CC resembles divvying out payroll or (occasionally) paying taxes.


This is clearest in discussions about climate change adaptation and mitigation. In some sense adaptation is conceived of how we deal with the mess we’re in, or more likely how we’ll deal with it when conditions are very harsh (say, little rain and scorching hot temperatures).

If excitement about dealing with harsh scenarios sounds insidious coming from, for instance, large agrochemical firms, think of the ugly twin in CC mitigation. Mitigation is much more along the lines of, ‘We’re so screwed at the moment, the only thing we can do is temper the worst effects with new products and services.’

Examples of this can be found here:, and are highlighted by famous bigwigs such as one of the former co-founders of Microsoft: Of course from carbon capture and sequestration to shooting sulfur into the atmosphere, the real beneficiaries aren’t your everyday Fatima and Kofi but rather a venture capitalist and corporate chairman who’ll manage with the effects of CC fine - from wherever there corporate jet can land them.

Therefore the slightly more attractive CC adaptation manages to draw the largest attention from do-gooders and more humanly inclined types the world over, even if we recognize how vile this child might grow up to be.

Back as it were to Africa. A sampling of scientific articles in which a geography plus CC adaptation or mitigation are contained in the title, at least those that Google has scoured, demonstrates just how important the Dark Continent is amidst constant railings against those who think of it as an invisible (or just murky).

Even if you categorize South America and Latin America separately, or for that matter consider the Middle East to be a separate, identifiable geographic unit, Africa supersedes all.

These articles are written by well-meaning researchers, and in many cases they make justifiable arguments as to why they conduct work in the Sahel or along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. But is Africa being singled out in the normal developmentalist mode as is so often the case? Yes and yes.


It is true that groups working on the climate implications of (and feedbacks from) deforestation, as one example, are heavily concentrated in South America and Southeast/South Asia.

It is also true that if one insists on using such crude measurements as Gini coefficients, Human Development Index, and downscaled climate models, Africa really does have a challenge ahead of itself. But there are other regions of the planet ravaged by colonialism, capitalism, and consumerism (the CCC, so as not to present confusion), in this case we really can turn to parts of Central America and Southeast Asia. They do not configure so prominently in the imagination of the development complex.

The question, then, is why should we care? Certainly, for Africanists, the idea that the continent receives such attention should seem comforting enough. After all, the African Left has been demanding recognition for decades.

But that recognition does not necessarily equate to actual respect, followed ultimately by distancing, which is of course is what Franz Fanon stipulated should be a close second.

The adaptation obsession, however, from its constant mention in UN tracts, as well as its evocation in the popular imagination, such as in film and photography, risks essentializing the plights of people the world over and refocusing attention on tired, shopworn stereotypes serving no one - not the least Fatima and Kofi.

We should not be so weary of concerns about climate change. Or even of alarmism (that is, authentic alarmism, if such a thing exists). We should, however, maintain our reluctance to engage in discourses hijacked or authored by the usual suspects, the engineers atop the political economy.

We should also not accept the singling out of Africans and Africa in the developmentalist mode. By all indications, climate change adaptation could become another lackluster matinee in a long series of soon-to-be-released features.

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