Africa: The Grim Realities of Western Climate Change Discourse On Africa

Where do African peoples fit into Western narratives on climate change, if at all? The Atlantic’s “grim ironies” article provides a cautionary tale.

As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was gearing up for elections in December 2023, The Atlantic published an article, by Senior Editor Ross Andersen, initially titled “War in the Congo Has Kept the Planet Cooler“. After uproar on social media, on which one user paraphrased the headline as “Death of Africans Good for Planet”, the title was changed to “The Grim Ironies of Climate Change“.

This was perhaps an improvement, yet the headline was not the only problem. The article remains problematic in subtle but important ways for how we think – and, crucially, talk – about climate change, especially in how it relates to Africa, a continent that has alternately been pitched as unfortunate victim or unlikely saviour of the climate crisis. In these framings, both present in The Atlantic piece, African people are rendered invisible.

The core argument presented in Andersen’s article is that decades of conflict in the DRC have reduced opportunities for mass deforestation. He notes that “so far, the Congo’s 500 million acres of forest have remained largely intact” and suggests that it is due to ongoing instability that “multinational companies have been slower to set up large slash-and-burn operations than they have in, say, Brazil”. Having established this, he posits that: “Any decent human being has to hope that a more stable peace will soon come to the Congo, even though it will likely mean more intense deforestation.”

Andersen’s basic thesis – that conflict has stymied large-scale logging operations – may be accurate. However, his decision to make this argument in this way reveals a problematic and worrying outlook that says much about mainstream Global Northern perspectives on Africa and climate change.

To begin with, The Atlantic article’s framing of the unstable DRC’s relatively intact forest as one of the “grim ironies of climate change” betrays an offensive Western-centric viewpoint that devalues the lives of central Africans. To call something a “grim irony” not only suggests that a positive and negative are inextricably intertwined but implies that they are of roughly equivalent moral value. This implied equivalence is perhaps easy to make casually, as The Atlantic does, if you regard the positives of less deforestation and the negatives of intractable war as similarly abstract. It is much harder to do if you have genuinely contended with the pain, heartbreak, loss, and devastation that tens of millions of people have endured as a result of conflicts in the Congo. It is much harder to do if you’ve confronted the brutal and concrete reality of what it means that 5.4 million people died in the Second Congo War, the deadliest war since WW2, or if you have insight into what life is like for the nearly 7 million people that are currently internally displaced in the DRC due to violence and atrocities, extreme poverty, and unregulated mining expansion.

A further example of the article’s casual devaluing of African lives lies in Andersen’s decision to limit his interest to deforestation. Once again, the author’s very narrow thesis may hold water, but only as it brackets out many other environmental harms exacerbated by conflict.

For example, the article neglects to mention that, as well as inhibiting “corporate-scale” tree clearing operations, the conflict has also prevented effective responses to alarming environmental degradation caused by unregulated mining. Amid the instability of war, several armed groups exploit mines – and employ tens of thousands of child labourers in the process – to fund their operations. These unsafe activities have led to widespread heavy metal pollution to land, water, soil, and crops. This has caused an increase in birth defects in many areas and forced whole communities to move. Ongoing conflict in the DRC has also contributed to a situation in which 190 threatened species are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. This includes the Grauer gorilla population which has decreased by nearly 80% over the past two decades, bringing them closer to extinction.

A better understanding of the complexities of the relationship between conflict and the environment in the DRC begs the question of why Andersen focuses solely on deforestation. The obvious answer is that it reflects with the priorities of the Global North. When it comes to international climate action, rich countries’ primary concern is the reduction of global carbon emissions so as to mitigate damage caused by the climate crisis in the future (as opposed to, say, adaptation in the here and now). Seen from North America therefore, the most important thing about the DRC’s rich environment is that its forests continue to keep as much carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere as possible. All other environmental concerns – including those with horrifying consequences for the lives, livelihoods, safety and wellbeing of tens of millions of central Africans in the here and now – are, at best, secondary.

As the climate crisis intensifies, and as the Global North increasingly looks to Africa’s vast mineral resources and natural carbon sinks for salvation, we must be ever more vigilant in asking where African peoples fit in to these narratives. Are they implicitly treated as disposable and doomed, as potential collateral damage in pursuit of the greater good, their wellbeing regretfully pitched against reduced carbon emissions? Or are they recognised in their full humanity?

An article that took the latter starting point could still have noted the same relationship between conflict and deforestation. However, instead of making this its main “grimly ironic” point, it could have started with this basic premise and explored how the DRC can protect its forests under a situation of greater peace.

Nteranya Ginga is an international development consultant with a research background in the rehabilitation, reconciliation, and reintegration of former child soldiers in post-conflict communities. Instagram: @nteranya.sanginga, Twitter: @Nteranya_Ginga. Tshimundu, who generally goes by Will. is a Congolese writer and artist currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His recent work explores the immigrant experience in the West, based on his own story. Instagram: @tshimundu. Koko Ginga is a Congolese second-year Political Science and Sociology student. She is an emerging writer aiming to document and explore life in the intersections. Koko is also the Assistant Editor of the Toronto-based PITCH Magazine. J. Munroe is completing a PhD at the University of Oxford, where he explores the implications of economic austerity on politics, public services, and the justice system in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

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