African Climate Justice: Articulations and Activism

By Mithika Mwenda and Patrick Bond

Among several million climate protesters during the global Climate Strike of September 20, 2019 were thousands of Africans. Among two dozen African cities hosting protests, the youthful activists marched in Nairobi, Kenya, in Kampala, Uganda, in Dakar, Senegal, and in South Africa’s Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban (Gdelt 2019). The latter country, by far Africa’s most carbon-intensive, included protests against government and the major polluter Sasol, and began to unite South Africa’s powerful but fragmented traditions of environmental justice activism. To understand the trajectory, in which until recently, the necessity of climate justice advocacy was foiled by a disarticulation between mainstream “climate action” and radical grassroots campaigning, requires a return to the point a decade earlier when vocal Africans made the case that the North was preparing Africa for a climate “holocaust”: Copenhagen’s 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC-COP15).

The word holocaust was used by a leading African negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping, in December 2009 after the leaders of the United States, Brazil, South Africa, India and China conspired to sabotage existing UN process in a small side-room. The Copenhagen Accord was adopted outside the parameters of the main negotiations; hence this “league of super-polluters blew up the United Nations,” according to Bill McKibben (2009) of Emissions-reduction targets agreed upon by Barack Obama (US), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Jacob Zuma (South Africa), Manhohan Singh (India) and Wen Jiabao (China) – and then foisted onto the rest of the conference – were weak: no more than what will bring a catastrophic 3-degree Celsius (or more) increase in temperature by 2100. Moreover, there were no binding provisions, thus denuding the 1997 Kyoto Protocol of its main merit: a semblance of accountability and nominal enforceability (Vidal and Watts 2009).

However, it was also at this summit that, from the floor ten days earlier, a spontaneous protest occurred. Impatient with the leaders’ negotiations, more than one hundred members and supporters of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (Pacja) temporarily disrupted the formal event, addressing a rally at a makeshift podium at Copenhagen’s Bella Centre. The attention of hundreds of media and conference participants was grabbed with a chant: “Two Degrees is Suicide: One Africa, One Degree!” Proclaiming, “No to Climate Colonialism, No to Climate Genocide!,” the Pacja activists not only demanded much greater emissions cuts from the gathered leaders, but also offered a scathing critique of the continent’s most visible official representative, Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who had unilaterally reduced earlier African demands for the Global North’s annual climate debt payments to the Global South from $400 billion to just $10 billion (Klein 2009, Bond 2012a).

The Pacja protest immediately followed a frank input to a strategy session of Africans by Di-Aping, the Sudanese diplomat who was formally the leader of the G77+China delegation. As he briefed Pacja and other civil society gropus, Di-Aping “sat silently, tears rolling down his face,” according to a report (Welz 2009). “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact,” he said, explaining that in his home region, it was “better to stand and cry than to walk away.” For much of the continent, said Di-Aping, 2 degrees Celsius globally meant 3.5 degrees C: “certain death for Africa”, a type of “climate fascism” imposed on Africa by polluters, in exchange for which the Third World was promised fast track funding. But this funding promise was merely a carrot dangled to vulnerable countries as a compromise, a trick which worked to break the solidarity of the G77+China group.

Di-Aping was already posing an unprecedented threat to the rich counties’ stranglehold on the UNFCCC. Their initial offer of an annual $10 billion “was not enough to buy us coffins” (Welz 2009). Di-Aping argued that the Copenhagen deal on offer was “worse than no deal… I would rather die with my dignity than sign a deal that will channel my people into a furnace.” As for the US president, Di-Aping was furious: “What is Obama going to tell his daughters? That their [Kenyan] relatives’ lives are not worth anything? It is unfortunate that after 500 years-plus of interaction with the West we are still considered ‘disposables’” (Welz 2009).

Di-Aping’s critiques were also, according to a witness, aimed inward: “Many African negotiating delegations were unprepared and some members were either lazy or had been ‘bought off’ by the industrialised nations. He singled out South Africa, saying that some members of that delegation had actively sought to disrupt the unity of the bloc” (Welz 2009). Di-Aping was roundly attacked by both Pretoria’s and the North’s negotiators for his rhetoric, and was not allowed to return to the UNFCCC negotiations. Yet his critique resonated, and at the same time, anti-apartheid South African Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (2009) wrote to the UNFCCC leadership, “We are facing impending disaster on a monstrous scale… A global goal of about 2 degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”

Two years later, the 2011 UNFCCC summit was held in Africa, but even worse power relations prevailed, as the host South Africa played into the hands of the U.S. State Department. In Durban, instead of a major demonstration inside, Pacja – having brought three busloads of activists from as faraway as Uganda – was outside marching with the main climate justice protest movement. But even that protest of 10,000 was watered down, because of collaboration with more conservative groups like the World Wildlife Fund (Bond 2012b).

The inability to emphasise either rapid action or climate justice meant that in 2015, the major emitters – the US, Europe, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan – agreed on new ways to undermine global climate governance in Paris. For example, not only was the voluntary character of the Copenhagen Accord reaffirmed, there was no accountability mechanism nor attempt to punish those countries which backslid. When in June 2017, just over four months after taking power, U.S. president Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the largest historic emitter from the deal, there was no punishment, notwithstanding calls across the spectrum (from Naomi Klein to Joseph Stiglitz to Nicolas Sarkozy) for anti-US sanctions or a “border adjustment tax” (Bond 2019b).

Together with its fundamentally voluntary character, another fatal flaw in the Paris Climate Agreement is that the costs of climate-related “Loss and Damage” from climate change are being disproportionately borne by Africans and others who did the least to cause the problems. Thanks to a Paris provision, they have no recourse to claiming “climate debt” and polluter liability in lawsuits (Bond 2016). The Agreement also reintroduced the unworkable carbon trading gimmick, which failed miserably over the prior fifteen years, through the back door. Moreover, Paris negotiators neglected to include several major categories of emitters, especially militaries, air transport and shipping. There was no attempt to penalise fossil fuel companies, incentivise their Just Transition to post-carbon energy supply, nor even rhetorically endorse the need to leave fossil fuels underground. No progress was made to enhance African acquisition of climate-friendly technologies that have long been protected by Intellectual Property. And the negotiators back-slapped each other for this awful deal so loudly that critical activists’ objections simply could not be heard (Bond 2016). Against the euphoria of Paris, Pacja and a few other climate justice movements (e.g. Friends of the Earth International) provided lonely defiance at the COP21 media centre, denouncing the Paris Climate Agreement as another historic multilateral deceit.

At the 2018 UNFCCC summit in Katowice, Poland, implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement included requests for countries to formally submit “transparency reports” about their emissions as well as analysing the Loss and Damage they were experiencing. But there are still no payment provisions, since the dysfunctional Green Climate Fund did not gather even five percent of its $100 billion per year objective by 2020, as Obama had promised when selling the Copenhagen Accord to those who were skeptical.


Contesting climate justice

Nevertheless, there are some climate activists – mainly associated with the global Climate Action Network (CAN) – who resignedly consider Paris a first step in the right direction. In contrast, climate justice activists generally agree with climate scientist James Hansen, who called the deal “bullshit” (Milman 2015). Instead of constantly comparing to the low bar of Paris, many activists believe it is much more appropriate for Africans to heap scorn on the Paris Climate Agreement. One reason for doing so is to ensure that a future group of much more serious international negotiators will not continue these fatal mistakes. Another is that those who aim to drag their feet on emissions cuts, or avoid any climate debt liability, enthusiastically promote Paris. Thus, to legitimise the deal only encourages current and future elites to continue along this path, removing the urgency to make the substantial emissions cuts required, and slowing the necessary reconstruction of economies and societies in a manner consistent with survival and justice.

But while there is climate action paralysis from above, there are exciting new forms of climate justice movement-building from below, many of which can be found in Africa, including within Pacja. Even the fragmented South African sites of struggle provide a degree of optimism for future unification once they impose much more substantial pressure on the carbon-addicted government of Cyril Ramaphosa, himself a former coal tycoon. Although Pacja defends its participation in UNFCCC and mainstream intergovernmental processes as a strategy to fight from within – so as to entrench climate justice narratives within both official and African civil society discourse – there is also a hybrid strategy based on building a mass movement from below. Struggles are being waged by Indigenous communities and local people in various African locations, especially where carbon-intensive, high-pollution extractive activities are taking place.

This mirrors climate justice activism internationally, where the most spectacular new post-Paris movements barely register the UNFCCC as a relevant force. Instead, they are committed to direct actions that block high-CO2 activities and corporate polluters, e.g. Ende Gelände in Germany, Extinction Rebellion in Britain, and the US Sunrise Movement, as well as the Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock. .

Meanwhile, the younger generation is already explaining to their elders why UN deal-makers and other high-carbon elites should stand aside. “I want you to panic,” Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg (2019a) insisted at the Davos World Economic Forum in early 2019: “Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t.” Addressing the UN Climate Summit in September 2019, Thunberg (2019b) was even more furious: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”

This new development is overdue: a universal inter-generational rage, from which the youth can legitimately warn the older elites that Climate Strikes will join other forces for justice, telling us quite correctly and ever more loudly, “You’re stealing our future!” But as the most militant of climate activists begin to explore the two-decade old set of climate justice principles, analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances, a new problem arises: co-optation of the language of climate justice, without adherence to the politics. One example can be found in the way scholars have mainly ignored the single most formative site of popular, bottom-up articulation of climate justice: the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba. (The citations for that conference since 2010 number just 657, as opposed to 16,100 for “climate justice.”) Another was the attempt to conjoin climate justice with schemes for carbon trading and offsets, as we see below.

Pacja rises

Founded in 2008 in Johannesburg during a meeting of Africa’s environmental ministers, Pacja initially emerged in part thanks to the prodding and financial support of a continental organisation often considered to have a neoliberal orientation: the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Bond 2005). A second founding organisation is also sometimes accused of using Africans, especially in civil society, for its own ends: Oxfam International (Bond, Brutus and Setshedi 2005, Ogunlesi 2013). Nevertheless, the network immediately developed an independent leadership team capable of fundraising without fear of state or international NGO manipulation.[i]

Another network of funders and supporters associated with the World Council of Churches – with Britain’s Christian Aid, Germany’s Diakonia, Finn Church Aid and Norwegian Church Aid prominent – gave support, followed by the Swedish International Development Agency and United Nations Environment Programme. Some Global North partners harbor expectations that the Global South’s desperate civil society groups will follow an ideological and programming agenda consistent with that of funders (Wrong Kind of Green 2019). The most controversial of Pacja’s partners were Mary Robinson’s Foundation for Climate Justice (based at Trinity College in Dublin) and the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, for the reason that both insisted on pursuing market-oriented strategies – carbon trading and offsets – that were not working in Africa (CCS and Dartmouth 2012).

The entire terrain of global climate governance is riddled with “climate action” strategies of this sort, even if in some cases the word justice is invoked. And yet some of the most constructive networking was done in partnership with ClimDev Africa, a program of the African Development Bank (one of the main fossil financiers), Africa Union Commission and UN Economic Commission for Africa (UN ECA). Personalities sometimes play an outsized role, such as that of UN ECA African Climate Policy Center director James Murombedzi, a Zimbabwean rural development scholar and experienced manager within the UN. He continually presses his agency to be cognizant of politics and especially justice. This perspective allows Pacja a great many opportunities, including the logistical support required to regularly assemble its members, e.g. within ClimDev or annual meetings of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, without losing its orientation to climate justice, not merely climate action.

As for Pacja’s own membership and their local orientation, Todd Beer and Mwenda (2016) surveyed more than 1,000 members from forty-five African countries in 2015. They included environmentalists, climate specialists, religious denominations, NGOs and CBOs, trusts and foundations, and farmers and pastoralists’ groups. Youth movements also began to join up. According to Pacja (2019), there is wide diversity in approaches, but in common, “over three-quarters of them indicate that the communities they work with have already been negatively impacted by climate change either a great deal or quite a lot.” A quarter of the members have a base in rural areas, but two-thirds are engaged in agriculture and food security and sixty percent address deforestation. Nearly half of the members are engaged in national-level advocacy, and another seventeen percent work at the global scale.

There were certainly forces operating in Africa aiming to co-opt Pacja’s (2019) policy and practical framings, e.g. “pro-poor development,” “human rights,” and “a global environment free from the threat of climate change with sustainable development, equity and justice for all.” Such language has become quite common in what are otherwise status quo institutions, captured in the idea of “talk left, walk right.” However, the difficulty these institutions faced in assimilating Pacja into the conventional climate action and eco-modernisation camps reflected the organisation’s commitments to values such as gender responsiveness and inclusiveness, professionalism, fairness and justice, and participatory democracy (Pacja 2019).

In Andre Gorz’s (1967) Strategy for Labour terminology, the climate advocacy scene is dominated by those arguing for “reformist reforms,” as opposed to the climate justice movement’s “non-reformist reforms.” In the former category, dominant reformist strategies generally accept and legitimise status quo institutional forms, endorse market mechanisms, and neglect to incorporate analysis highlighting class, race, gender, generation and geographical power relations. To illustrate the latter, the climate justice movement would typically make non-reformist demands upon their own local governments and the national negotiators who were involved in climate negotiations, if such reforms weaken the corporate power structure and continue its delegitimisation, and in the process empower activists to demand further-reaching changes.

The strength of Pacja’s advocacy is in part based on hostility to the high-emissions countries and corporations. When it comes to cutting emissions sufficiently for the world to remain below 1.5 degrees Celcius, Pacja’s member poll found trust in the European Union to be only thirty-one percent, in China, twenty percent and in the US, seventeen percent, during Obama’s presidency (Beer and Mwenda 2016). Also of interest are Pacja members’ views on the Third Worldist developmental debate with the North, especially over whether the Southern countries should use their own high-carbon activities – e.g. fossil fuel extraction – to “develop.” More than seventy-one percent disagree that “fossil fuels should be a primary avenue for development,” and fifty-nine percent “disagree that their nations should develop any fossil fuel resources discovered within their borders.”

One crucial question still to be fleshed out, however, is whether Pacja and its members will advocate for financial compensation to the communities and countries which do restrict their current and future fossil fuel extraction. One precedent is the demand made by Ecuadoran eco-feminist and Indigenous activists to forego extraction of $10 billion worth of oil discovered in the Yasuní National Park (the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspot, within the Amazon forest). The demand for the oil to be left “under the soil” was to be in exchange for the North’s climate debt downpayment of $3.6 billion to the Ecuadoran people, via grant-based social policy financing (Bond 2012a). Although the strategy was sabotaged by the German government in 2013, following which Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa permitted Chinese and Ecuadoran oil firms to begin drilling, “Yasunidos” advocacy continues (Leave Fossil Fuels Underground, 2018).

Another indication of Pacja members’ ideology is the extent to which members “believe that a radical shift away from capitalism is the best way to address climate change,” as Beer and Mwenda (2016) posed the question: “Over three quarters (77.7 percent) of respondents supported this position compared to less than a quarter (22.3 percent) who reported that global warming is best addressed within a system of capitalism.”

However, in spite of some encouraging signs, the harsh reality is that the vast majority of African citizens have been apathetic, and the upper-income elites – especially in South Africa – live in conditions akin to the richest First World habitats. These men (and a few women) occupy the commanding heights of fossilised power, where profits and new oil and gas discoveries are too sweet to kick their addictions – unless those promoting climate justice politics became much better organised, and brave enough for the conflagrations that inevitably lie ahead.


[i] By way of disclosure, the chapter’s first author was involved in leadership of Pacja from the outset; and the second author has served as a volunteer advisor to Pacja on a few occasions.

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