Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The future of Africa and the world will be defined by our response to the ongoing climate crisis. In order to effectively confront this era-defining challenge, we need to rethink our development paradigm and move beyond the narrow industrial focus towards a future where the environment and social benefit are seen as intrinsically inseparable.

In December 2012 in Doha, Qatar, something significant shifted in the world of climate change politics: the collection of national governments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body responsible for global climate governance, officially admitted our collective failure to protect the climate and ushered in what is being referred to as the third era of climate change: ‘loss and damage’. Thus, whether or not you are person concerned with climate change, you are officially a person living in an increasingly dangerous changing climate. The question facing us now, collectively, is not if we can stop climate change but, rather, how bad we will let it get? Just how we answer that question may well define our generation.


In the space of my short lifetime, and probably yours too, we have seen the emergence of three so-called eras of climate change. The first era of climate change arose in the 1990s, when governments began to agree that as our industrial societies spewed more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere we were potentially bringing upon ourselves dangerous runaway climate change, and that we needed therefore to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in order not to create a world defined by climatic chaos. Enter the era of mitigation.

About ten years later we realised that we (well, mostly the developed world and the global rich) weren’t yet doing enough to mitigate (i.e. to slow down emissions) and that our climate would begin to shift due to our actions and inactions, forcing us to adapt to changing climates, while mitigating to decrease the impact. Enter the second era of climate change: adaptation.

Alas, another ten years down the line the UN once again conceded failure, as we realised that both our mitigation and adaptation measures were insufficient, and that we are set to suffer significant losses as a result of human-caused climate change or global warming. So, on the back of humanity’s collective disappointment, we heralded in the third era of climate change: loss and damage.

As the findings of cutting edge climate science show, the impacts of our negative contributions are already being felt the world over in the form of more intense and more numerous droughts, floods, hurricanes and many other extreme weather events. This is coupled with slow-onset problems such as sea-level rise, desertification and salt-water intrusion. These events are definitive of a world changing through global warming and serve as a portent omen of worse, more intense and extreme events to come.

As unpleasant as this may sound, and as frustrating as it has been to watch year after year of missed opportunities for change, this is the reality that this generation faces, and future generations will inherit. However, we do have the ability to limit climate change’s negative effects but only if we act, only if we change, only if we critically revisit and redefine what it is that drives us, rethink the ideas that underpin our development paradigms, and revisit the goals that motivate us and influence our relationship both amongst ourselves and between us and our environment. Undeniably, this means a deep reflection, and within that reflection lies a world of possibilities both positive and negative.

By sitting through days and days of frustrating United Nations climate change conferences I have learnt that we cannot rely on global governance structures to save us and our climate – we have predominantly been doing so for over twenty years now, and look at where it has gotten us (Cf. 400 ppm). Realising the limitations of global governance, we need to take a more active role in tackling this problem ourselves in order to avoid looking back and blaming a faulty international governance system, when the true power for change lay within our own hands.

To repurpose a quote from Theodore Roszak, our complete world economy is not made up of the UN, but rather it ‘is built upon millions [now billions] of small private acts of psychological surrender, the willingness of people to acquiesce in playing their assigned parts as cogs in the great [and in our case destructive] social machine’.

Yes, the challenge is ours as individuals, as citizens, as leaders, to create the world we want, or at least the best world we can given the cards we’ve been dealt.


60 percent of the world’s unused arable land, much of its untapped resources, and seven of the ten fastest growing national economies are on the African continent. and Africa, in many ways, yearns to develop, to move beyond the constraints of poverty and into a world of possibility. This drive for change in Africa provides us with a unique opportunity to redefine growth not as something measured by the abstraction of a GDP which causes us to celebrate rapacious, unequal, extractive growth as success, but rather to define growth by the development of human welfare and happiness, coupled with ecological integrity – growth which is inclusive, meaningful and lasting, not marginalising, superficial and fleeting.

In South Africa, as in many places on the African continent, we are faced with an apparent dilemma: we have an expanding industrial economy, which we are fuelling with fossil fuels, but so-called ‘green resolutions’ are asking us to do otherwise. Given this, it seems like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. However, now more than ever, we need to look beyond this false dilemma.

It is true that South Africa cannot continue to fuel the current industrial economy without mega energy projects, but what products of our current economy are so valuable that they obligate us to do so? Top-down, unequal, extractive industrial development often benefits a few at the expense of many. Are we getting the economic and social results we want? For the majority of South Africans, I am not so sure.

We in South Africa need to question and rethink the development paradigm that has allowed us to become one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters and resource-intense economies in the world, while still allowing for such great poverty and inequality. This paradigm has yielded growing urban sprawl with elite pockets of wealth surrounded by burgeoning squatter camps or slums, coupled with environmentally insensitive and often degrading development. South Africa is now 128th of 132 countries on the environmental performance index, and one of the most unequal societies in the world. Of course, we must not throw the baby out with the bath water and forsake the benefits such development has brought, but we must ask ourselves what further costs we are willing to pay to pursue such a destructive idea of ‘development’.

The industrial development paradigm that we currently seem hell-bent on pursuing in South Africa is failing throughout the Western world, and many of the reasons why it did originally work consisted, to a significant extent, in the West’s exploitation of others, and their exportation of the associated negative impacts beyond their own borders. We don’t have access to quite the same perverse privilege. So why emulate something that is not ‘sustainable’ – however you choose to interpret this famously ambiguous term?

In the words of John Perkins: ‘[Often] we prefer to believe the myth that thousands of years of human evolution has finally perfected the ideal economic system, rather than to face the fact we have merely bought into a false concept and accepted it as gospel. We have convinced ourselves that all economic growth benefits humankind and the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. Finally, we have persuaded one another that the corollary is true: that people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded’.

As leaders across the African continent attempt to stoke the fires of economic growth, we must continually ask ourselves whether the products they are selling us are akin to the myth that Perkins describes – one that will sell our future down the river in the name of lopsided economic growth. We Africans we must ask ourselves what further costs we are willing to pay to pursue that possible myth, or whether we will redefine development and growth to provide broader and more inclusive benefits.

South Africa provides important lessons for the rest of the African continent, for to avoid achieving the same unequal and damaging results, we need to redefine our development paradigm to focus on more localised, bottom-up development. This includes ecological, justice and health considerations as vital development indicators for which renewable energies and less resource-intensive development are often more suited. Furthermore, there is an urgency in doing so, for as Faith Briol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency points out, ‘delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent to compensate for the increased emissions [and associated climate impacts]’.

As Africa continues its proverbial ‘rise’, we need to learn from and reflect on the lessons of out-dated development paradigms and work towards an Africa that is defined by new measures of success, ones that work for its people and environment.


Make no mistake – Africa will be hard hit by the ravages of a changing climate, which has great potential to further exacerbate existing environmental and social ills. For this reason, we must learn to stand together, to help each other in times of need, to work together to create prosperity in the face of increased adversity, and to adapt.

Yes, it is a gross injustice that we in Africa will be hardest hit by a problem to which we contributed the least, and we must fight for climate justice and ensure that those most responsible are held accountable. However, fellow Africans, we must be wary of playing the blame game. For we and our politicians are often too ready to blame our problems on (Western) others in order to excuse ourselves from our own inaction and failures. As Fayiso Stevens somewhat hyperbolically points out, ‘if Africans spent half as much of their time trying to solve their problems as they did working out who is responsible for them, they wouldn’t have any’.

Blaming problems on external agents or forces, regardless of the legitimacy of the blame, can lead to a severe diminishment in perceived agency, and the ability to act to solve one’s own problems. Indeed, a rising a sense of agency across the African continent, combatting the discourse of disempowerment, will be needed to face this crisis. Adversity requires advanced agency, so our task, to empower Africa, rings out with an increased sense of urgency in the face of a changing climate.


Though we live in a time defined by previous failure, I have hope for our climate and our future. (Although I sometimes fluctuate between a deep sense of despair and hopelessness in the face of what often seems an overwhelming problem). My hope lies in us. I have seen the youth, adults and the aged alike stand bravely against some of the most powerful and rapacious institutions in the world in order to fight for their future. I have watched the growing climate movement join forces with other social movements as we increasingly realise that social and environmental issues are deeply intertwined. Indeed much evidence suggests that we are on the cusp of a truly historic, international, societal transformation. Whether we will grasp this opportunity for change and enter a new paradigm of growth and development is not a question that can be answered in the air-conditioned boardrooms of the UN. Rather it is up to each and every one of us. The question of our future will be answered by a growing global movement willing to speak truth to power and shift the disastrous course we are on. The revolution will not be televised, bureaucratised, or solved by online petitions. The revolution must be popularised.

Already I have met and read the thoughts of great thinkers, and seen and heard of many powerful actions which are building towards a new paradigm. Having had a glimpse of what this new paradigm could mean, I aim to continue to play my part in the fight for social and environmental justice in order to help create a better future for Africa and for people across the world. Will you do the same and heed the call for global, environmental and social justice? We, the people of Africa, need you, the people of the world, the rich and especially the poor, the vulnerable and the secure, the present and the future, because a just future needs you and everyone else too.

* Alex Lenferna is a South African Mandela Rhodes & Fulbright Scholar pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Washington focusing on climate change, poverty, inequality and justice.



* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.