The effects of the Great Warming are not fairly shared. Fourteen percent of the world’s population lives in the 57 countries on the African continent. However, because the majority of Africans live with little to no access to electricity and personal transport usage is among the world’s lowest, Africans contribute only 3 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
The United States, conversely, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, contributes nearly 25 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas pollution annually. In the United States, with our consumption of electricity, our ecologically harmful industries and our 230 million passenger vehicles, we are literally fueling the destruction of the planet’s environment.
Last month, at the United Nations Climate Change summit in Nairobi, Kenya, climate change experts from around the globe reported to 165 countries on the impacts of global warming, which will be felt most harshly by poor developing countries. If that weren’t bad enough, the former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern recently released a report that suggests that global warming could shrink the global economy by 20 percent over the next 50 years. From the report and the summit, it is clear that climate change is as much a humanitarian, security and economic issue as an environmental one.
Unfortunately, some of the world’s richest countries and major polluters—Australia, Canada and the U.S.—failed, at the summit, to address the most urgent needs of the world’s poorest countries. Climate change has already caused significant damage on the African continent and it is now agonizingly clear that a lack of action by the world’s major polluters to reduce global warming pollution will, in short order, devastate the globe. “I do not see any change in our policy,” said the United States’ senior climate negotiator, Harlan Watson, days after the conference began. “We feel very comfortable.”
According to the hundreds of scientists and other experts on the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming will create dramatically increased droughts, water shortages, coastal floods and disease for Africans.
The changes from the Great Warming are already being felt in many places. The people of northern Kenya, for instance, are still suffering today from a drought that started in 2003. Kenyan pastoralists have lost 10 million livestock, and two-thirds of the population in the Turkana region has lost their livelihoods.
In Nigeria, severe flooding in the Niger Delta has become more frequent, with floods wiping out crops and disrupting traditional farming practices. In Tanzania, one third of the ice field peak of Mount Kilimanjaro has disappeared in the last 12 years; 82 percent of Kilimanjaro’s peak has vanished since it was first mapped in 1912.
Global warming has also caused changes in weather patterns that have and will continue to disrupt livelihoods across the continent. Declining crop yields in the next 20 years will lead to more famines and deaths. Droughts and increasing desertification mean smaller areas of viable farm land and an increase in forced migration to more densely populated areas. The results of global warming will inevitably heighten resource scarcity and fuel conflict and war.
Meanwhile, in some African countries, the oil, gas, mining and other extractive industries that support the consumption habits of the United States and other rich countries contribute to global warming. Nigeria, South Africa and Angola are all nations with comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions by African standards.
Nigeria in particular has the highest greenhouse gas emissions in sub-Saharan Africa because of the “flaring” of excess, unwanted natural gas by multinational oil companies. When gas comes to the surface during the oil extraction process, the gas is burned rather than reinjected into the ground or processed for use by local communities. The result is toxic pollution in the short term and global warming that will ultimately harm those communities a second time.
Deforestation in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of the globe also produces greenhouse gases. During the 11 days of the conference an estimated 745 thousand acres of forest were lost.
Last year, international aid organizations and governments focused much of their Africa-related diplomacy on addressing impoverishment, with the goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015 through debt cancellation and more money to fight diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Unfortunately, a discussion of climate change as a major driver of impoverishment—now and in the future—was absent from those conversations about the African continent.
As Kenyan Environment Minister Kivutha Kibwana stated at last month’s U.N. Climate Change meeting: "We face a genuine danger that recent gains in poverty reduction will be thrown into reverse in coming decades, particularly for the poorest communities on the continent of Africa."
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is occurring and will result in more intense hurricanes and mudslides that will kill, injure and displace thousands of people, the international community still cannot agree on—or even begin to discuss—how to achieve the needed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
In Nairobi, the nations most at risk from climate change did not get strong commitments from the world’s richest nations to seriously confront global warming. Rich nations refused to make commitments, thus ignoring the evidence presented that demonstrated that in order to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people, many of whom live on the African continent, the leaders of the world’s richest nations (and biggest polluters) need to take more drastic and timely actions.
The course we must take is fairly clear. With the highest greenhouse-gas emissions in the world, the United States must take a leadership role in cutting emissions and changing course on energy use. The state of California recently made commitment to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050, which is the type of commitment the U.S. will need to make in order to avert what scientists call "dangerous" climate change.
To avert this dangerous change, substantial reductions in our energy consumption and a shift in energy sources to renewable energy are necessary. Significant gains can be made with more energy-efficient technologies, like plug-in hybrid cars, more efficient industrial processes and energy-efficient appliances. Incentives and policies need to be put in place to shift energy supplies to sources like wind power, solar power, geothermal energy and certain biofuels made from sustainable sources. If we don’t achieve these changes, the people on the African continent will suffer the worst.