On a small coral island off the coast of mainland Papua New Guinea, the sweltering May heat marks the beginning of the annual dry season. This tiny island is usually home to about 700 people who live off of its abundant marine resources year-round, but for two months in the summer of 2018 the island and its inhabitants welcomed some new faces. Located 12 000 km away from sub-Saharan Africa, it hides the missing clue as to why the massive continent’s climate change plans will remain incomplete without the inclusion of communities and private non-governmental actors.

A team of researchers led by Michele L. Barnes of James Cook University found themselves on the island at a crucial time. Like so many different parts of the world today, this overlooked region has already begun to experience the severe impacts of climate change—in this case sea-level rise, coastal erosion and disruptions to critical reef ecosystems.

With its marine resources dwindling, the researchers have come to observe how this island’s highly climate-vulnerable community will adapt, with the hopes of better understanding the different factors which underpin adaptive responses to climate change.

In a world where financial assets are heralded as the essential foundation of adaptive capacity (i.e. the capacity to change behaviours within an existing system in response to climate change), they hoped to uncover some other building blocks which could serve to strengthen existing approaches of reducing climate vulnerabilities. 

Halfway across the globe, at the annual Bonn climate talks which precede each year’s UN Conference of the Parties (COP)—an enormous and prestigious UN event where dozens of thousands of people meet to negotiate climate action, an infernal battle was unfolding that would set in motion a chain of events with considerable implications for what Barnes and her team had just set out to find.

Frustrated by a lack of progress on the financial mechanism required by the Paris Agreement, a mechanism which promises developing countries financial support in adapting to climate change, the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) upped the ante and held the EU climate agenda ransom.

Their ultimatum was simple enough: either rich countries report their intended finance flows ahead of the upcoming COP (and thereby cement their commitment to assist the world’s poorest continent fight climate change), or this group of 54 African nations would not be offering their much-needed signatures come November when the final deadline approaches for agreeing on a ‘rulebook‘ for the Paris Agreement—a rulebook which the EU remained determined to dominate.

In the consensus-driven world of UN climate forums, with pressure mounting to finalise the historic Paris Agreement and time running out to meet the targets set by it, a threat such as this must be taken seriously.

You might also like: The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps for the Modern Era

climate change communities africa

Figure 2: Estonian environment minister Siim Kiisler speaks to Seyni Nafo, who was chair of the African Group of Negotiators, at a meeting of EU environment ministers in July 2017 (Photo: Annika Haas/EU)

Today’s Climate

This is a story rooted in many years–and indeed decades–of buildup, but only recently could we begin to appreciate its outcomes.

To understand the significance of Barnes’s trip to the remote Pacific island, the showdown which unraveled at the Bonn climate talks or any other effort intersecting climate action, finance and development, it is necessary to recognise the importance of the term resilience.

Resilience is a word that has been gaining more traction in climate discussions. Essentially, climate resilience refers to the ability to prepare for, recover from and adapt to the increasingly severe impacts of climate change. In short, it means that key economic and social systems are climate-proofed for a future where thriving–not just surviving–is the goal.

A key component of resilience is therefore adaptation (more specifically, the capacity to adapt). As for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the importance of climate adaptation cannot be understated—it is literally a matter of life and death for the millions clawing their way out of poverty in a highly vulnerable continent that is only starting to realise its vast potential for development. African governments and negotiators know this, and so does the UN.

climate change communities africa

Figure 3: Workers from the United Nations Development Program assisting well installation efforts in Gambia (UNDP).

Later in 2018, at COP24 in Poland, the African Group of Negotiators reached an agreement with their European counterparts, contrary to the expectations of many. The rulebook for the Paris Agreement was largely finalised, and though there were still some matters that needed to be addressed in the following year’s COP, it seemed as though the world’s nations were now as ready as ever to take on climate change together.

Yet, despite the agreements reached and settlements made, what the African nations were fighting for in Bonn that summer was not exactly achieved. They had to settle for vague, uninspiring terminology to govern their incoming financial support—developed countries were now expected to report on their projected climate financing to developing countries only “as available,” and communicate just “an indication of” any new and additional resources to be provided.

This became more clear the following year (in 2019) at COP25 in Madrid. Matters that were not finalised at COP24 were expected to be finalised here, but not only were they pushed back once more, older problems that were considered settled had resurfaced. One of these problems was finance.

Barbara Creecy, President of the African Ministerial Conference of the Environment, said at COP25 that Africans “urgently require new, predictable and adequate financing for adaptation beyond voluntary donor assistance.”

Even UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was disappointed with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis.”

2020, then, was supposed to be the year where these issues–particularly finance–were to finally be settled. That was, of course, until the coronavirus pandemic tore through the planet and COP26 was delayed for an entire year.

So with climate finance targets far from being met, major talks on hold due to current circumstances and a global economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic (with massive implications for African economies and development aid of all forms), should sub-Saharan Africa still pin its dreams of a climate resilient future on increased finance from foreign countries?

As is starting to become more apparent—No.

Inclusion as the Key

Rather than hoping and waiting for more financial contributions from developed countries (a situation in which Africa not only loses valuable time but also the ability to fully dictate its own development needs and paths), SSA governments must do more to ensure greater inclusion of domestic non-governmental actors in order to drive climate adaptation and, ultimately, achieve resilience.

This is not a new finding. As far back as 2013 reports such as this one by the International Development Research Centre were calling on African nations to “open up private-sector finance for adaptation.” They recognised that while international funding was essential, so much more could be achieved by engaging the private sector.

More calls for the inclusion of the private sector followed. In 2018, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) released a synthesis paper titled Climate Change Adaptation in Africa, which acknowledged the impressive initiatives and funds that have helped mobilise climate adaptation in Africa, but quickly yielding that “the true costs of adaptation will be substantially higher than originally projected,” and that “substantial engagement with the private sector” will be needed if those adaptation targets are to be met.

In 2020, an article by Climate Analytics highlighted Ghana’s recent “Private Sector Engagement Strategy” as evidence that governments in SSA are starting to realise the importance of this engagement. It argues that the “diversity of the private sector means that an effective strategy will leverage the expertise, creativity, innovation and resources of the country’s wide range of industries and firms,” allowing Africa to make the most of its own resources rather than expend time searching for more. 

A similar sentiment is shared by Alice Saisha, a columnist at Project Syndicate who makes the case for “Leveraging Africa’s Informal Economy for Young People.” She states that sub-Saharan Africa’s informal economy amounts to 41% of its GDP, and that in order for SSA to overcome “governance failures like rampant corruption and inadequate investment incentives,” governments must be ready to listen and work together with non-governmental organisations to harness the continent’s immense human capital.

However, one problem still remains. As more papers and studies are finding (and as predicted by economic theory), private sector actors often require considerable financial incentives to adopt adaptation measures, and therefore concerns remain that the private sector views environmental issues as impediments, not contributors, to profit and development. This obstacle can be overcome with proper fiscal incentives, but this is by no means an “obvious” solution for cash-strapped African governments still battling with countless other problems which continue to plague their relatively young postcolonial institutions.

So What Can Be Done?

The Power of Communities in Shaping Climate Change Plans in Africa

Once again, the answer lies in inclusion, not just of the private sector, but of the communities that stand to lose most from the impacts of climate change in Africa and beyond, and therefore stand to gain most from adapting to it and becoming resilient.

In sub-Saharan Africa, these communities are often left behind in climate change conversations despite being the intended beneficiaries of so many projects, development programmes and capacity-building efforts. As one author puts it after conducting a study in a rural Nigerian village where one such UN project was underway, “Climate change projects in Africa aren’t working because communities are being left out.” Where there was a lack of inclusion, communities became apprehensive and were unlikely to actively engage with such projects, effectively leaving them unable to address their own vulnerabilities in the long run.

But including community stakeholders in national and sub-national projects is not just a matter of transparency or good will—it is a way through which SSA governments can fully make use of their country’s social and physical resources and move past their reliance on foreign help.

The merits of this approach became more than evident with the publishing of Barnes’s most recent paper in Nature Climate Change—the paper in which she and her team report the findings from their time in Papua New Guinea. Their research shows convincing evidence of the power of personal connections in climate adaptation that could apply just as well to Africa as it does to small island nations.

At its core, her research shows that people are more empowered to respond when they see others doing the same. Rather than solely focusing on policies that seek to reduce vulnerability to climate change by channeling funds to build up material assets or create infrastructure, her paper emphasises that a “broader set of factors can play an important part in the actions communities end up taking.”

Specifically, empowering and leveraging inter- and intra-communal connections between families and friends is key to helping communities adapt to the devastating impacts climate change will have on their homes and livelihoods, in much the same way that enabling the private sector is key to achieving resilience in economies in Africa.

This is due to three key domains which Barnes and her team specify as social organisation (wherein network exposure allows for social influence to catalyse action in response to climate change), social learning (whereby personal experience accumulates over the years and enables adaptive and transformative responses to resource management amid changing environmental conditions), and perceived power (which plays a critical role in encouraging–or discouraging–adaptive behaviour within a network).

We especially witness this tremendous ability communities possess during times of crises, such as when devastating hurricanes make landfall, or when a pandemic such as COVID-19 forces entire cities to shut down. Here, social organisation, learning and power catalyse positive response, allowing communities to adapt to the challenge and ultimately overcome it. There is no doubt that climate change is one of the biggest existential threats human civilisation has faced in the entirety of its existence, and so facing it without utilising this unique asset of ours could prove to be a fatal step.

So while the African and European negotiators battled it out in Bonn in 2018 for a chance to dictate when, where and how much climate finance will flow, Barnes and her team confirmed in Papua New Guinea that efforts to build financial assets, crucial as they are, may not be enough to achieve true climate resilience, and that all existing and future efforts of this nature would be far more effective if governments better appreciated and empowered their communities.

With a population that’s expected to double to two billion people by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa should orient more of its policies around this described inclusion of its various non-governmental actors, enable the private sector to take the lead on climate adaptation by providing adequate financial incentives and policies, but also harness the power of its communities in Africa to once again put people, not money or infrastructure, at the heart of its climate plans for the future.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons