Africa and the Reframing of Climate Change as a Security Issue

Most of us know that the threats posed by climate change are real and occurring every day. In recent years through the expansion of research on climate change, we now have a better understanding of current and projected effects of climate change. It has been projected that there is a 90 percent chance that global temperatures will rise from 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius in less than a hundred years. These shifts in temperature may seem minimal but will have destabilising effects on our planet and its people. The effects of climate change currently being felt include melting of ice-caps and glaciers and extreme whether events. These effects are cross cutting, with researchers warning that the environmental effects of climate change are the least we ought to prepare for.

Through these warnings researchers have drawn links between the effects of climate change and security. For these researchers, climate change is best viewed and understood as a “threat multiplier” in that it  exacerbates existing security trends, tensions and instability. Direct consequences manifest through effects on infrastructure that is key to the maintenance of national security and can therefore inhibit a state’s ability to conduct military operations. Indirect effects occur through stresses on resources that underpin a countries security such as water, energy and food.

The way societies react to climate change is largely dependent on underlying social, political and economic factors. Existing pressures and low capacity to adapt of countries on the African continent make them particularly vulnerable to negative security consequences resulting from climate change. With existing insecurities including poor economic growth, weak governing systems, how can African states cope with the pressures of climate change?

In North Africa, it has been projected that increasing drought, water scarcity and the overuse of land could lead to soil degradation and the possible loss of 75 percent of arable, rain fed land. In the Nile Delta, sea level rise could lead to the loss of 12-15 percent of arable land and could affect 50 million people by 2050. In the Southern region of Africa, droughts that are contributing to poor harvests are expected to leave millions facing starvation. African migration to Europe is expected to rise and in Africa and beyond, climate change is expected to have negative effects on health particularly through the spread of vector-borne diseases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that in some African countries agricultural yields could fall by up to 50 per cent by 2050 and, by 2020, up to 250 million people are projected to face increased scarcity of water due to climate change.

Links have also been drawn between climate change and violent conflict in Africa. A growing body of research on climate change and violent conflict in East Africa has shown that changes to the environment such as changing rainfall patterns and droughts have contributed to varying kinds of violent conflict in East Africa. These links have been drawn from conflicts involving livestock herders and more intense political power struggles and civil wars such as those in Sudan and Somalia.

In the Africa Unions 2007 declaration on Climate Change and Development in Africa, member states acknowledged Africa’s vulnerability to climate change and its potential to endanger the future wellbeing of African people, ecosystems and socioeconomic progress. In the same year the IPCC, concluded that Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to the effects of climate change due to existing stresses and its low capacity to adapt to challenges. It has been noted by some that very few African leaders have grasped the seriousness of the impacts of climate change. In 2007, the Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni called climate change an act of aggression by developed countries targeted at developing countries. He also demanded compensation for the damage inflicted on Africa by climate change.

Although links exist between climate change and security and Africa due to its inherent disadvantages is likely to cope poorly, the re-framing of climate change as a security issue is a debate that requires more concrete evidence.  To argue for example that increased climate vulnerability automatically causes migration or that drops in rainfall have led to conflict in East Africa is an over simplification of causes of conflict. Climate change is a challenge that is riddled with uncertainties. It has been warned that uncertainty tends to breed anxiety which may lead to fear that then produces policies that provoke public interest from academics and the media at the expense of accuracy.

Going forward, more evidence needs to be gathered on the link between climate change and security. This would then enable policy makers and all relevant stakeholders to gain clear understanding of key issues and effectively inform decisions made. In the past, other issues such as HIV/AIDS have been linked to security. Perhaps a reflection on these experiences would assist in the successful framing of climate change as a security issue.


Featured image | cracked Africa : futureatlas.com | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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