Kenya: As We Talk Climate Change Solutions, Politicians Should Start Doing Their Jobs #AfricaClimateCrisis

Harare — If I were to take a wild guess, I bet that when I talk about who is affected by climate change, your first thought wouldn’t be you, your friends or family.

I’m partly to blame for that, so I’m sorry for not doing my job properly.

So here’s the very uncomfortable truth; we have a climate crisis on our hands and it is already affecting you and me right here and right now.

Yes we aren’t the same. But there is one thing we all do, no matter where we come from, what language we speak, or who we are. We all eat right? I hope I have your attention now. It would be reckless for us to overlook any problem to do with our food, wouldn’t it?

As climate change arguments continue to rage, the way in which journalists and newsrooms cover the climate catastrophe has become more crucial than ever. We’re talking about the biggest story on the planet here. A story about the planet itself, a story that somehow still doesn’t get the news coverage that it deserves.

But we can’t talk about this crisis without mentioning the privileges, perspectives and interests of wealthy nations and big business over those of poor countries on the frontlines of climate breakdown.

We still have news organisations, many of whom remain dependent on the money that big oil advertising provides. But for journalists in search of the assignment that matters, the story of our ability to sustain life, this has become a mission that has to be accomplished or we perish.

I have to admit, it has taken us too long to catch up to find the right story telling formula. Too often the reporting still struggles to see beyond the science to get at the bigger picture of how this story we’re covering connects to every aspect of our lives.

What the media needs to do

“I want to charge the journalist to have a way of communicating what climate science is producing to the people in a very good way, in an accessible way. What do I need as a grassroots person to reach information on climate? If you want human beings to feel the impact of something and desire to take action, humanise climate change and make it even more frequent so that you’re constantly putting in our minds, what climate change can do to us and what you can do about it,” said Dr. Frida Karani, a university lecturer, advocate of human rights, behavior change, and sustainable community development and founder of the Sustainable Climate Action in Africa Conference. She is also an aspirant for the Senatorial seat in Kenya’s Embu County.

For far too long, we’ve been telling the story on how climate change is real and man-made, how human-produced pollution is causing it, and how there is overwhelming scientific consensus that this is true. Mainstream news companies have gotten better at saying “it’s genuine” and “experts agree” after decades of carelessly portraying a scientific problem as a two-sided political dispute.

In a similar vein, after years of IPCC reports warning of catastrophic fires, droughts, and storms, we are now skilled at emphasising how “terrible” things have already gotten.

Well, all of that is useful and deserves praise because there is no use in discussing climate crisis remedies if the public does not comprehend the magnitude of the impending catastrophe. So what are we missing, really?

We already know that the climate crisis will have irreversible effects that will be felt most acutely in vulnerable regions around the world, particularly Africa, if urgent action is not taken to alter the trajectory.

We know that although the most effective countermeasures to climate change have not yet been widely adopted, as journalists we are in a good position to make sure that such measures are on the public’s mind.

We surely have been reminding you of the effects of global warming. But we need to do more.

Nevertheless, the tendency in many newsrooms is to concentrate on what individuals can do to reduce emissions, such as switching to solar panels for their homes or purchasing electric vehicles. These things are significant because they link us to a global phenomenon and because they can make us feel somewhat powerful. But it is unfair to place the burden of this issue on the shoulders of individuals when huge corporations and governments profit from it.

We can all agree that the effectiveness of climate change solutions must be assessed by how quickly and by how much they move the world toward drastically reducing global emissions.

An individual doesn’t make policies though, it’s the people in power that do. But companies and governments continue to talk about a zero-carbon economy while doing little to eradicate fossil fuels and we need to investigate them and make them accountable.

At this time, any policy that encourages the combustion of fossil fuels must be viewed as careless.

So what do we have to do?

As individuals we got to ask questions like why our governments are not increasing use of renewable energy like wind, solar, biomass and combined heat and power installations. And are manufacturing companies doing enough to reduce CO2 emissions from new passenger cars?

Of course our current global situation is characterised by stark differences in wealth and power both in and between nations, many of which have older histories of colonialism and exploitation. Powerful corporations in industries like energy have frequently been able to determine the direction of climate action due to these inequities. Because of this, it has become extremely challenging to pursue policies that would put their interests at risk but would significantly cut emissions, such as outlawing fossil fuel extraction.

In East Africa the effects of climate change have hit countries hard. Climate impacts have already led to the loss of lives and livelihoods, driving migration and rapid biodiversity loss in the region. But what are policymakers doing – or not doing – about these issues?

Joyce Chimbi, a science, health, and environment journalist in Kenya says politicians don’t consider climate issues to be a low hanging fruit. Despite this being the case, she said there are so many leaders who are passionate about the green agenda, just that they’re not deliberate or intentional about speaking to these issues, because they’re not considered issues that people want to hear about.

“If you look at the politics of the day, climate is not a top priority. In fact, unless you ask a political leader about the green agenda, you will not hear issues about climate being discussed within the political fora. So because in essence, politicians don’t consider climate issues as a low hanging fruit. These are not things they feel the electorate or the voters want to hear about, which is a contradiction, because most of the issues that we’re facing today, be it challenges of food security, even the inflation that we’re facing now, all have to do with a lack of, or an absence of a mainstreaming of the green agenda in our politics and across all the sectors of our economy,” she said during a recent webinar on The Politics of Climate Change: How Journalists Can Scrutinise Green Agendas & Political Candidates.

Chimbi says there’s a need to normalise the convergence between politics, green economy and sustainable development.

“The green economy is not an entity itself. You’re looking at all these sustainable goals and these goals are heavily dependent on how we interact with our environment. So the missing link in the green agenda remains within the legislative arm and not because we don’t have political leaders who are passionate about these issues. It’s because we will also as journalists advance this perspective that this is not a story that sells to editors, and also to our readers, and yet, they are the ones who are suffering from the effects of climate change,” she said.

Karani says climate change is a status and no longer a process.

“It’s here, it’s affecting us. And it’s part of us. Reality number two, is that all the efforts that seem to be put in place, are still not making the ends meet, we’re still not seeing the results of everything that is being done. We still have discussions in the boardrooms, we still have frameworks and policies that are still on the shelves, we still have so much that is not done. We still have a lot of what I would call pedestrian talk about climate change. Because one of the things that I prescribed to is that when you discuss climate change, and after any discussion, no matter how low level, no matter how high level and there is no action – that is just pedestrian dialogue. It’s just like we just meet on the street and we discuss climate change and that is it. So we need to appreciate that the efforts that are being put in place are still not yielding the results that we expect,” said Dr. Frida Karani.

She emphasised how communication has an essential role to play in pushing a response to climate change.

“It must first raise awareness, make people feel involved and ultimately motivate them to take action. How many of the local journalists will tell us what climate change is called in the language that they broadcast in? What is climate change in Kikuyu, do they know those languages, so that then we are able to make the meaning that we are seeking as far as climate is concerned,” says Karani.

We know that trust between scientists and policymakers is important in developing policy that is informed by scientific evidence.

A good example would be in 2019 when President Uhuru Kenyatta affirmed Kenya’s commitment to achieve a minimum of 10% forest cover by 2022 as part of Kenya’s efforts to address the challenge of climate change. At the time Kenyatta said his government had identified forestry as a key sector of investment in the realisation of the east African country’s development agenda and implemented the national green growth strategy that has set clear restoration targets aimed at achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When you look at the former presidents of Kenya, in terms of the forest cover it is clear how each one of them influenced environmental policies. When Jomo Kenyatta was president, the forest cover of Kenya was above 10%. During the Daniel arap Moi era, it dropped to below 4%. Mwai Kibaki increased it and then Kenyatta was able to be part and parcel of the current one, where he was able to sign into The Bonn Challenge, a global goal to bring 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.

“There’s the importance of planting trees and all these trickle down to the type of leader you have. So if your leader is not environmentally oriented, then expect the forest cover to reduce,” said Dr. Jackson Kinyanjui Koimbori, East Africa-Regional Coordinator Climate Reality Project and Founder of Climate Change Awareness Kenya. He is vying for the Speakers seat of County Assembly in Nakuru County.

Karani says the media along with civil society organisations should find a common platform to work together and come up with solutions.

“When it comes to climate issues, scientists are on their own, the activists and the advocates are on their own, policymakers are on their own. But they should have a common platform provided by the media and the civil society organisations. You’re the people who can bring these people together, and consolidate their thinking, consolidate their actions,” she said.

Speaking of solutions, in June 2022, the Nairobi City County government launched the Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2020-2050, making Nairobi the first city in Kenya to adopt such a plan. The CAP aims to create green jobs, restore parks, open spaces that will improve mobility options to citizens and embrace clean energy options.

“We realised that this city is growing at a very high rate and also the city has all the characteristics of being affected by climate change. The process started about three years ago, we got some support from C40 Cities, and we developed the climate action plan together for the last three years,” said Maurice Kavai, the head of Climate Change and Air Quality in Nairobi City County.

Kenya’s general elections are slated to take place on August 9, 2022. Voters will elect the president, members of the National Assembly and Senate, county governors and members of the 47 county assemblies.

We are aware that in the past, environmental concerns and the dangers of climate change do not frequently appear during campaigns and in political party manifestos. This has to change now. Surely manifestos that give the way forward on climate change mitigation and adaptation, and provide mechanisms for addressing the issue, would be a good start.

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