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Climate change—voices from the Global South

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Wildfires across southern Europe focused attention on climate change, just as reports showed how Earth is heading for disaster. But the Global South got barely a mention. Socialist Worker spoke to activists in Asia and Africa about how the crisis is affecting the less developed world
Issue 2769
In Nigeria deforestation has affected 35 percent of total landmass
In Nigeria deforestation has affected 35 percent of total landmass (Pic: Flickr/ jbdodane)

We are entering a new age of extremes. By 2050, life in many parts of Asia will become unbearable. The land is set to alternately suffer from extreme rainfall and severe hurricanes, then intense heat waves.

The coming decades could be worse still in Africa. The continent contributes almost nothing to climate change. Even if its carbon emissions fell to zero, the world would hardly notice. And yet five of the countries most affected by extreme weather events in 2019 were African.

Farmers up and down the continent report unfathomable weather fluctuations. But nowhere is it worse than in sub-Saharan Africa, where 95 percent of farmers have no irrigation.

This summer, in the wake of the wildfires still spreading across North America and southern Europe, came the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Its stark evidence of irreversible changes that have already happened and warnings of what is to come have focused the minds of millions of people.

Even some world leaders and big business seem troubled by the prospects.

Leaked climate report lays blame on the rich
Leaked climate report lays blame on the rich
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But all too easily they have tried to shift the debate from what the rich and their system has done to the planet, to a narrative in which all of humanity has to share the blame.

And as the climate crisis intensifies, millions of people in the Global South will be forced to leave their homes.

In this special Socialist Worker report, our contributors from Asia and Africa turn the debate on its head. They start with how those who contribute least to the problem are already paying the highest price.

In doing so, they turn their fire not only on the rich “1 percent” largely based in the North, but also upon leaders of their own continents.

It’s good that the heads of some countries are now arguing for the cancellation of debts owed by the Global South to the international bankers. This is so the money can be used on climate change preparations.

But, say our authors, many of these same leaders have been enthusiastic participants in the system of exploitation that has forced misery on the poor. And it has left them utterly exposed to the extreme weather now so commonplace.

Only by confronting the system that destroys lives and the planet do we have a chance to rescue humanity.

Capitalism can’t meet the challenges posed

Philippines-based Walden Bello is a leading activist and theoretician in movements for the environment and social justice


What strikes you most about the impact of climate change on the Global South?

We’ve seen terrifying disasters triggered by climate change over the last decade. Some came in one massive blow, such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which in one day levelled much of the central Philippines and took over 6,000 lives.

Some are gradual but irreversible, such as sea level change that is submerging island countries like the South Pacific island nations and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Or the inexorable desertification in many parts of Africa that is creating millions of climate refugees.


Much of the ruling elite in the Global South is determined to press ahead with a model of development that is historically similar to that of the West. Why are they not looking for alternatives?

I think that many of the elites in the South have bought into the model of high-speed, carbon-intensive growth because they think it serves their interests.

In their view, high growth translates into a bigger economic pie, and a bigger pie means there is less pressure for wealth redistribution.

What you see in China, for instance, is that high-speed growth has created a much bigger economic pie that has led to the rapid reduction of poverty.

So, as one economist puts it, if one’s boat is rising, there is less attention paid to other boats which may be rising much faster than one’s own boat.

There’s some social pacification owing to the rapid reduction of poverty.

But the trade-offs are greater inequality of wealth, climate change and massive environmental damage owing to continuing reliance on fossil fuels.

However, the impacts of climate change and other environmental disasters are now clearly impacting negatively on public health and boomeranging on the economy.

In many instances farmers know their vegetables are contaminated with heavy metals, such as cadmium or mercury. Therefore they don’t eat local produce.

A recently published analysis by the Chinese Academy of Sciences places the economic loss owing to climate change and other environmental problems at 13.5 percent of GDP.

I think the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party knows the score on climate change, but it still has to take decisive action to address it.

Maybe that’s because it is still daunted by the enormity of the challenge of blazing a new economic and ecological path that departs from high-speed growth-oriented capitalism.


The latest IPCC report talks about climate change as having been caused by “human action”. But the poor in the Global South have contributed very little to the crisis. Do you see dangers in approaching the climate crisis as a problem created by “all of humanity”?

Historically, the Global North has accounted for the bulk of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere. And within countries, the carbon contribution of the rich per capita is so much greater than that of the poor.

The inequality of wealth is paralleled by the inequality in carbon emissions. The richer you are, the more carbon you fart.

In that sense, to say that the climate crisis is a problem created by “all of humanity” is incorrect.

The better formulation is that all of humanity is responsible for taking collective action to address the climate crisis. Our responsibility is taking the political action to force both the Global North and the rich in the South to stop behaving in the same old climate‑damaging ways.

De-growth is a must in the Global North. But it must be a strategy where it is the rich and the upper strata of the middle class who bear most of the burden of adjustment.


What attempts are being made to mobilise workers and the poor on climate issues in the Global South?

There is now great awareness of the connection of coal and fossil fuels to proliferating disasters. But in many countries, mobilizing on climate and the environment is still largely a middle class affair.

Workers, the poor, and the marginalised remain to be mobilized on climate and the environment.

But this will only happen when they understand that a climate-friendly economic strategy is also one that promotes poverty reduction. As well as greater equality, and a better quality of life for them.


Does that mean we should be looking towards more radical solutions? And, if so, can you see the potential for alliances between the poor of the Global South and workers in the West?

Definitely. Capitalism, even a “reformed capitalism,” can no longer meet the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

Environmental disasters are becoming ever-present. Only a post‑capitalist system, whether you call it socialism or social democracy, is capable of connecting the welfare of the earth with the material and spiritual welfare of the majority of the people.

Neither neoliberalism nor right wing populism is in a position to harness the energies of people who are concerned with drastically taking steps to stop the deepening of the climate crisis. This is because of the value they place on competition among people and dominating nature.

Only the left can achieve change, but it must go about this in ways that are not inflexible. A new internationalism yearns to be born, one where equality and the care of the planet are central.

‘We have world’s highest rate of deforestation’

Baba AyeSocialist Workers League, Nigeria

In 2012, Nigeria witnessed the worst floods in its history.

Some 7.7 million people were affected in 32 out of its 36 states. More than half a million homes were destroyed, leaving 363 people dead while 2.1 million were internally displaced.

Ever since, the rainy season has been marked with heavy floods. Ocean surges and rising sea levels have also submerged several villages in coastal states.

By 2015, 35 percent of Nigeria’s total landmass had been affected by desertification. States affected are in the northern Sahel region.

Lake Chad in this region used to be the sixth-largest lake in the world. But it has shrunk by 90 percent in the past 40 years.

The combination of desertification and drying up of rivers and lakes has been a significant factor in the sharp increase of violent clashes between cattle herders and farming communities. In recent years these conflicts have killed thousands of poor people.

Profit, not people, is destroying the climate
Profit, not people, is destroying the climate
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Deforestation is one of the reasons for desertification in the northern states. More than 14 percent of Nigerian primary forest has been lost in the past eight years. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, the country has the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

This is driven by timber export, logging, construction, and subsistence agriculture.

Our government’s response to climate change has been a sham.

It has failed to make oil companies stop gas flaring—despite setting a deadline six times. Flaring, burning off excess gas created by oil extraction, is a major contributor to greenhouse gases emissions.

Instead the state organises behavioural change campaigns demanding rural communities stop using wood for fuel. But these drives fail to address the poverty behind this use.

The price of kerosene, which most poor farmers use to cook with, has shot through the roof.


Each year the government warns of impending floods and advises people to relocate. But most of those affected live in overcrowded shantytowns because they cannot afford better housing.

When floods come, private companies get tax breaks for donating food and clothing to internally displaced people.

Most people are yet to connect this revenge of nature to the profiting‑making system of capitalism that exploits working people and the environment alike.

The trade unions have not prioritised climate change campaigns. They have failed to speak out for poor people that need to be protected from floods and provided with alternatives to wood for fuel.

Socialist activists in the unions, colleges, and communities have argued we need struggle for “system change and not climate change.”

This led to the Young Workers Movement—which brings together young trade unionists from all sectors—joining the 2019 Climate Day of Action.

We can stop the climate crisis and the barbarism of capitalism only with a solid international movement of working class people and youth.

‘Women are bearing the brunt’

Laura MusangaInternational Socialist Organisation, Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has not been spared from climate change. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns have severely threatened food security and have also opened natural boundaries for diseases.

For example, where there is extreme heat, natural pests like tsetse flies proliferate.

That may partly explain why malaria cases have been on the increase here. And why there is a need for more treated mosquito nets to be given to pregnant women and nursing mothers.

We also face food security threats.

Rainfall patterns have become unpredictable and this is coupled with the need to buy expensive seed. Ordinary people have been left with no option but to use varieties which may not adapt to environmental changes.

Our rulers’ efforts to counter the effects of climate change have been quite small compared to the scale of the challenge. There are some initiatives from companies such as Nyaradzo Assurance, which donates a tree to every customer they bury in an effort to reforest the country.

A third of Zimbabweans face a food crisis due to climate change and neoliberalism
A third of Zimbabweans face a food crisis due to climate change and neoliberalism
  Read More

But it is not just climate change policies that are neglected.

Ordinary people are battling hard to get one meal a day, and for most that takes precedence. The frequent hikes in the price of basic goods and services such as water, electricity, hospital fees and food has further exacerbated the matter.

So climate change appears to the ordinary person as a simple proposition. Either way we will die, so we’d rather place food on the table and leave the fight against global climate change to the elites.

This is particularly disheartening because while the elites are the trigger for climatic change, women and girls continue to bear the brunt of it.

From gathering firewood, to tilling the ground for cultivation of crops, all the way to caring for the sick in the family due to malnutrition or new diseases. This work is generally done by women.

And, after all the hustling, women and girls pay the price. It’s seen in poor health facilities, no sustainable pension, in some cases a fragmented family unit and no place to call home.

Climate change is an effect of capitalism, the commodification of all goods and services and disregard for the environment. It confronts both the rich and poor to various degrees.

But the sad reality is that the ordinary citizen, the working class, the poor and the peasants pay the biggest price.

‘Capitalism is not sustainable’

Lebogang MaleboKeep Left, South Africa

South Africa is not immune to global climate change and neither is able to declare itself innocent of its causes.

The country is coal reliant for energy and is ranked 12th in the world for its total greenhouse gas emissions—the highest in Africa.

South Africa’s state owned energy company Eskom is the biggest polluter in the continent.

The power utility company has approached the threat posed by the climate catastrophe with a snail‑pace implementation of a plan to transition to renewable energy. It has given itself a target of 2050 to reach net zero carbon emissions.

In recent years climate movements across South Africa have grown and even started to embed themselves in working class communities.

Be realistic—why we can stop fossil fuel investment
Be realistic—why we can stop fossil fuel investment
  Read More

These movements have been at the forefront of organising protests and agitating for a just and socially owned renewable energy system. As well as protesting against the slowness of Eskom’s transition to renewable energy.

However, the Achilles heel facing the movements has been the building of solidarity between communities and workers’ struggles.

Already the impact of climate change is being felt by people who have no access to food. This is because of the levels of poverty caused by the destruction of the environment. The recent IPCC report is right to sound the alarm bell for immediate transformation of our society and economies. But by pinning the blame on human activity as responsible for global warming, the report is shifting the blame from the current economic system.

It is this capitalism that is no longer sustainable, just as Eskom is no longer sustainable.

The Global Climate Strike day on 24 September marks an important step towards building international solidarity. Here we hope to include trade unions and other progressive movements as well as young people and students.

Energy—broken promises

Unless there is action very soon, climate change could force 100 million people in Africa into extreme poverty by 2030.

Wealthy nations have long promised Africa the money needed to help agriculture on the continent survive.

Tanguy Gahouma‑Bekale, chair of the African group of negotiators at November’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow, says they were promised an annual £88 billion fund.

“But we don’t see the money,” he says.

Millions of people in the continent are already forced to survive without electricity. Yet, the example of Morocco shows what is possible.

A 6,000-acre solar energy complex serves as a clean energy source for around two million people and provides a huge number of jobs.

If such projects were repeated across the continent the transition from fossil fuels could lead to the improvement of the lives of millions of people.

Heat—Asia to be hit hardest

Rising temperatures and lethal heat waves predicted for Asia will hit hardest the countries with economies least able to respond.

But countries in “Advanced Asia”—including Australia, Japan and South Korea—are expected to have a net agricultural benefit from climate change.

However, more frequent extreme rains and typhoons could wreck global supply chains.

Lethal heat will likely hit the number of hours people can work too. Some scientists predict that it will be impossible to work during the hottest 10 percent of the day in most Asian countries.

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