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Review of ‘Climate Change in Africa’

Camilla Toulmin’s recent book, written with ‘agency and intelligence’, is commendable for its ‘statistical insight’ and the ‘perceptive linkages’ it makes ‘between seemingly separate aspects of climate change’, writes Jamie Pitman. But by pinning hopes on market-based solutions for tackling climate change without explicitly acknowledging the role of capitalism in creating the problem, Pitman concludes that ultimately the book is ‘an exercise in “reformism”’.

With the efficiency of a certain British advertising campaign, Camilla Toulmin’s ‘Climate change in Africa’ does ‘exactly what it says on the tin’. The book avoids writerly flourish and rhetoric to deliver a nuts-and-bolts analysis somehow shoe-horned into a tight 150 pages. Six of the nine chapters are given over to a particular aspect of climate change (water, food, forests, cities, conflict and carbon markets), each delivering a wide-ranging overview and ending with a brief prognosis that often identifies those areas where the author finds some hope for the future.

Toulmin avoids making the necessary articulation of facts and statistics overly dull by granting her readers with a degree of both agency and intelligence to unpick some important and recurrent themes. Not least of which is the part world leaders and corporations have played in subordinating Africa to their own interests. Even with her tendency for understatement, Toulmin exposes the injustice that underpins the costly price Africa will pay for events for which they are the least responsible. Sadly, many readers of the book – and indeed this review – will hear the echoes from slavery, colonialism and onwards to the rigged markets of global capitalism (to which Africa is still waiting for her invitation) loudly reverberating. One is reminded of the movie poster that proclaimed ‘your murderers come with smiles’.

I should stress that this assessment is my own and, however warranted, is just the sort that the writer carefully avoids. Instead, Toulmin continues with her factual reporting and analysis, interweaving sometimes seemingly disparate consequences of climate change (such as the choking effects to female emancipation or causing barriers to education) whilst punctuating the bleakness with rays of optimism. Paradoxically, one of these ‘rays’ actually adds to the bleakness. This is because Toulmin pegs much hope on the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, which is now widely acknowledged to have been a failure (the director of Greenpeace UK called it a ‘crime scene’). World leaders accepted the importance of a two degree cap or ceiling on further temperature rises, the significance of which Toulmin stresses in the book – but the leaders failed to ratify this accord. There are also many other planks, similarly and depressingly unconstitutionalised, on which Toulmin had laid much weight (most notable of these were the trajectory of future emissions, their proposed peak and reduction levels – and all of this was further compounded by the absence of a prospective timetable to address the neglected points).

In draining this one stream of hope (Copenhagen and the political process) that Toulmin frequently refers to, it is difficult to endorse any of the remaining trickle. Whilst camel’s milk or fishing (see chapter 4) might provide some palliative effect or easing to particular problems, it would be naive to think that they are fundamental solutions, which is not to say Toulmin pretends otherwise. However, the collapse of any faith in the political process (admittedly, with the benefit of post-Copenhagen hindsight) leaves Toulmin’s assessment with just one strand of hope and that is in the carbon markets.

Toulmin begins her advocacy of the potential that the carbon markets might hold for Africa from the second page of the introduction. Also in the introduction, Toulmin outlines a Rawlsian theory of distributive justice (John Rawls was an American political theorist) to illustrate the obstacles that Africa and others in the 53 least developed countries (LDCs) face around the negotiating table. The theory uses the example of a child (a metaphor for the developed nations) dividing up his or her birthday cake at their own party. Left to their own devices, the child would generally cut themselves a disproportionately large slice first – leaving the other guests (the LDCs) to fight over the remainder. However, if the child is told they must cut all the other guests a slice off before their own, the birthday boy or girl is much more likely to be meticulously fair to ensure that they themselves don’t lose out. Toulmin offers this analogy up as the template from which future negotiations should be premised (the future now resting on the climate summit in Cancun, Mexico at the end of 2010).

Personally, I find the idea of carbon markets being a panacea for Africa, the LDCs or indeed anywhere else to be deeply flawed. Firstly, there is the utopian notion that members of the G8, the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF, World Bank and the WTO) alongside the multinational corporations (MNCs) will voluntarily surrender their own dominant positions to the poorest nations. This would not only be unprecedented, but would also signal a complete reversal of all the empirical lessons history has to offer us.

Let us suppose for a moment that the assembled leaders of global capitalism were somehow gifted with some degree of humanity and selflessness (once again to the contrary of all the past evidence and in opposition to capitalist ideology), resulting in the LDCs being given an equal or even favoured voice at the next climate summit in Cancun. A pure market mechanism would invariably drive the unit price of carbon down as Africa’s 53 sovereign countries fought for their piece of the market.

Even if the price was valorised (this is when a price is set at a fixed amount), Toulmin repeatedly refers to the corruption that is rife inside many African governments, so there would be no guarantee that this new flow of capital would ever be redirected into the sort of state-funded schemes that might create employment, infrastructure or any such measures that might improve the lives of the people.

Thirdly, if we accept the argument that Africa’s unconditional entry into the global market could be her saviour precisely because of the speed at which capitalism drives development (a la Dambisa Moyo), it surely follows that carbon markets could be the undoing of this. This is because rather than promoting the sort of rapid industrialisation underway in India or China, carbon markets would actually deter it. The result of this would be replacing the reliance on one lot of crumbs from the developed countries table (aid) for another (carbon).

Finally, there remains the legitimacy of carbon trading itself. Carbon trading was dreamt up in the late 1980s when the developed nations realised that breakdown of the Eastern Bloc also meant that the industrial output of those eastern European countries would also decline. Consequently there would be a large and sudden reduction in global emissions. Not only would this allow the developed countries to continue polluting by paying the former communist countries for the privilege, it allowed them to increase their emissions by the same amount their new trading partner had previously emitted. Carbon trading not only provides a free market get-out clause for the global North but could also be a recipe to make things worse.

‘Climate Change in Africa’ attempts to merge being light enough to slip into your trouser pocket whilst dealing with one of the most starkly pressing and serious issues facing humankind. This difficult balancing act necessitates the no-nonsense, lean style of prose mentioned earlier. My first criticism of the book is a result of this.

Whilst commendably compact, I fear ‘Climate Change in Africa’ might not be suitably engaging enough to serve as an introduction or a ‘reader’ to the uninitiated – a function the book’s size suggests it is appropriate for. The concentrate of facts, figures and case studies can leave one feeling as though they are reading through the pages of a government or other officially commissioned study. Essentially, it is a very dry read perhaps of most use to a student or journalist searching for facts and figures from which to make their own analysis.

My second criticism is more fundamental. Toulmin’s struggle to be succinct does not excuse the reluctance to name and shame the role of the market within the essay. Capitalism becomes the ‘elephant in the room’ – forever lurking in the background, rather than ever being explicitly mentioned. This omission is particularly obvious when Toulmin details the plight of African farmers – who have not only struggled against the WTO’s skewed import/export reforms, but are now having to compete against commercial giants (like Monsanto), who can afford to take measures against the effects of climate change.

From this perspective, Toulmin’s book becomes an exercise in ‘reformism’ – that is trying to find answers to Africa’s climate change problems within capitalism itself, despite the defining role the system has played in both the situation Africa finds itself in today and in creating the climate change phenomena itself. For this reason, I can only recommend ‘Climate Change in Africa’ on the narrow merits of its statistical insight and the perceptive linkages Toulmin makes between seemingly separate aspects of climate change. Unfortunately, those of us who not only want to join the dots, but who also want to be able to see the bigger picture, might be better off looking elsewhere.


* Climate Change in Africa by Camilla Toulmin is published by Zed Books (London/New York) and is priced £12.99/$22.95. ISBN: 9781848130159.
* Jamie Pitman is a politics and economics student at Ruskin College, Oxford. In what seems like a previous life he was a docker and then a carpenter.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.