Africa may survive climate change better than expected

Adaptation to climate change could be easier for African nations because of rapid changes – particularly urbanization – happening across the continent.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
People walk near power-generating wind turbines at the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) station in Ngong hills, about 22 km (14 miles) southwest of Kenya's capital Nairobi, September 8, 2010. Kenya's KenGen will add 20.4 megawatts of electricity from wind turbines at a single site in a move to add renewable power sources to help stabilise supplies by 2013, its energy minister said.

The fierce debate over the extent of climate change should not obscure the severe differences of opinion over how much adaptive skills of humans will influence the adverse effects of climate change. Especially in the sub-Saharan, where the severity of warming is expected to be among the greatest in the world and where the fragility of the environment is already high in some significant sub-regions. A concensus seems to be emerging that improved governance could significantly reduce the pain of climate change for ordinary Africans. Here’s the superb Andrew Revkin on this important perspective:

“Many scientists believe that sub-Saharan Africa will be particularly vulnerable in the coming decades to climate-related dangers like heat waves and flash flooding. But global warming is the murkiest of factors increasing the risks there. Persistent poverty, a lack of governance and high rates of population growth have left African countries with scant capacity to manage ….”

Revkin makes an excellent point that climate change isn’t a scourge in itself; rather, how humans adapt to changing weather is crucial. We might place his perspective in an emerging perspective that priviledges the “social construction of climate change.” Across a wide spectrum of challenges posed by climate change, the short-term response could well be to alter “patterns of development,” as Daniel Sarewitz, my visionary colleague at Arizona State University has so eloquently and persuasively argued in many formats in recent years, notably an Atlantic piece from 2000 that remains prescient today.

Just how much can Africans be expected to alter their behavior in the face of climate-change? Afro-pessimists, such as Revkin, see scant capacity and little reasons for optimism. Yet the facts on the ground show otherwise. Africans are undergoing the largest and most radical shift in their patterns in hundreds of years. The least urbanized region on the planet, Africa is urbanizing more rapidly than anywhere else. The world’s fastest-growing cities: nearly all in Africa. The greatest numbers of people moving from farm to city: Africa comes high on a list that of course must include India and China. In the urbanization of Africa lies the greatest potential for adaptation to climate change. The story of African cities — their sudden, violent expansion in recent decades; their great potential to leverage such transformative technologies as cell phones; the economies of scale and the denser richer markets that come from clustering people who historically have been the most widely dispersed in the world — will shape the unfolding climate-change drama in Africa in ways that remain both impenetrable to environmental scientists and activists alike.

The sheer rapid pace of urbanization in Africa means that climate change could well have less negative effects on Africans than most well-meaning observers presume. By directing their energies at assisting both public and private actors in African cities, the international community could begin to introduce concrete adaptations that better the lives of a growing proportion of ordinary Africans. That most assistance remains directed at nation-states in Africa is understandable but unfortunate. Outsiders must begin to work more energetically and directly with Africa’s burgeoning cities, where the best defenses against the worst effects of climate change can be identified and reinforced, where possible.

-- G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works here.

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