Africa: Ukraine, Africa, and Our Planet

“An end to this terrible war based on dialogue must be the international community’s highest priority. Support to the people of Ukraine must be matched by efforts to advance Russian/Ukrainian negotiations, European security dialogue, and wider risk-reduction measures to prevent nuclear escalation.’ – The Elders, May 25, 2022

The war in Ukraine, and above all its continued mutual escalation as a proxy war between the United States and Russia, is a painful reminder that wars in Europe are still a threat to the entire planet. This is not only because of their direct economic consequences. It is also this war, featuring white people as the major protagonists and visible victims, has diverted media and political attention from existential issues for Africa and the entire world.

Among the most critical of these is the steadily approaching climate apocalypse, as this year´s global summit on climate, to be held in Egypt in early November is approaching while the world is hardly paying attention. Listen to Kenyan activist Elizabeth Wahuti at last year´s COP26 in Glasgow.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) an essay by Donna Katzin and me, published in Foreign Policy in Focus, on the continued urgency of action on climate, (2) an essay by me, published by Responsible Statecraft, on the war in Ukraine through an African lens, and (3) a short report by Graça Machel of the Elders on their latest meeting.

Because it is critical that attention on this war does not crowd out other wars and other issues, I also include just below a short set of links to recent articles focused on African and global issues.

Read and Recommended “The main thing we need is to return home,’ she added. “But we don’t know if we can. Everything there is destroyed.’ The world is paying too little attention to a slew of mass displacements of people across Africa, risking starvation deaths and prolonging conflicts, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has warned. In many parts of the world, official death tolls undercount the total number of fatalities More than a year after Joe Biden announced his support for a waiver of intellectual-property rules to supply cheap vaccines to most of the world’s people, the process remains blocked. The European Union is still siding with the drug companies, and the U.S. has not followed through on Biden’s pledge. The issue comes to a head next week in Geneva. As spring phases into summer in North America, with trees flowering and birds migrating, nature seems abundant. In fact, however, the Earth is losing animals, birds, reptiles and other living things so fast that some scientists believe the planet is entering the sixth mass extinction in its history. Covering 10% of the world’s hydropower reservoirs with ‘floatovoltaics’ would install as much electrical capacity as is currently available for fossil-fuel power plants. But the environmental and social impacts must be assessed.

Additional links with climate change updates Currently up-to-date through today The twin dilemmas of humanitarian and political crises have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both of which have of course had far-reaching effects globally, and continue to take a toll in African countries. (PDF available here) The United States and Western Europe have been quick to deploy strong sanctions against Russia. Yet historically, they have rejected or delayed enacting economic penalties against regimes whose atrocities were committed against Black populations. – Editor’s note

‘Open Your Hearts’: The Movements Taking Climate Action Where Leaders and Media Won’t

The world’s most existential crisis has all but fallen off Washington’s agenda. But campaigners are finding success in more immediate targets.

By Donna Katzin and William Minter June 7, 2022

Media, politicians, and policymakers tend to focus on the most visible issues.

The attention the war in Ukraine has received in the first half of 2022, for example, is unrivaled in the United States at least since the shock of 9/11 in 2001. The war has been highly visible because of the capacity to obtain compelling photographs and videos, which can be shared quickly through social media — and also, perhaps, because the featured protagonists, victims, and voices in this European war are white, in contrast to past and present wars in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America.

The gut-wrenching suffering in Ukraine deserves coverage, context, and resolution. But meanwhile, other global issues — pandemics, rising economic inequality, the climate crisis, and more — have faded into the background.

The backsliding on climate action is a clear example of the damage done.

Big Oil Profits While Washington Stays on Autopilot

By this spring, fossil fuel companies were celebrating massive increases in profits, while Congress was approving $47 billion in new spending for Ukraine, the largest U.S. aid package to a single country in decades. Political will in Washington to stop production of fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy, already weak, had evaporated as time to avoid a climate apocalypse continued to run out.

Meanwhile, the rise in fuel and food prices caused by the war is being felt most intensely in developing regions such as Africa. This has come on top of preexisting shocks from the continent’s own wars (fueled by outside actors including the United States, France, Russia, and others), from illicit financial flows draining the continent of its wealth, and from the deadly toll of climate-caused disasters already taking lives and destroying livelihoods.

As of late May, both the Biden administration and Congress seem to be committed to “winning’ the war in Europe instead of encouraging negotiated solutions. As the November election approaches, on the eve of the next climate summit scheduled for Egypt, funding global climate commitments to Africa and the world for recovery from climate damages and investment in a sustainable future can hardly compete with eagerness to fund a wider war.

The obstacles to action were already formidable.

Lobbyists from fossil fuel industries could count on strategically placed Senator Joe Manchin, the coal industry oligarch unapologetic about his own conflicts of interest. Highly publicized pledges for “net-zero’ goals from giant corporations and other institutions, including fossil-fuel companies themselves, were most often filled with enough loopholes to make them virtually meaningless. Demands for rich countries to provide compensatory funding for climate damage to the most vulnerable countries won lip service but not funding at global conferences.

On April 4. 2022, the final Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report was released, concluding that “In the scenarios we assessed, limiting warming to around 1.5°C (2.7°F) requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030. However, it gained relatively little media attention. Obstruction by the fossil fuel industry was a central theme of the report. But it was excluded at the last minute from the “Summary for Policymakers.’

Soon after, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres slammed the fossil fuel industry for trying to use Russia’s war on Ukraine to boost polluters’ profits at the expense of the global climate and all life on Earth.

“Fossil fuel interests are now cynically using the war in Ukraine to try to lock in a high carbon future,’ Guterres tweeted. “A shift to renewables is crucial to mending our broken global energy mix and offering hope to millions suffering climate impacts today.’

Meanwhile, solar energy companies have been paralyzed by a Commerce Department ban on imports of solar modules from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, to investigate whether the imports contained too high a percentage of components from China. The Commerce Department investigation is due to be completed in August, but in the meantime it is likely that as much as 64 percent of U.S. solar projects could be canceled because of fear of retroactive tariffs. In June, the administration announced a pause on new solar tariffs, but for existing projects the damage may already be done.

In May, the World Meteorological Organization predicted that “there is a 50:50 chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5 °C above the pre-industrial level for at least one of the years’ from 2022 to 2026. Yet few national governments, apart from the small island states that can easily envision their entire countries being sunk beneath the oceans, have adequate incentives to act with the urgency demanded by the scientific facts.

And a new exposé in The Guardian revealed that “the dozen biggest oil companies are on track to spend $103 million a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas that cannot be burned if global heating is to be limited to well under 2C.’

Meanwhile, at a climate conference in Florida, House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi shrugged her shoulders when asked about the prospects for passing climate legislation this year.

Where Climate Campaigners Are on the Offense

Fortunately, many climate activists are recognizing that, as in a host of other crises, it is both necessary and possible to focus on more immediate targets — from state and local governments to fossil-fuel giants that can be confronted with disinvestment as well as physical blockages of pipelines and other climate-destroying projects. Such actions, if multiplied around the world, have the potential for their own cumulative impact as well as for catalyzing action by national governments.

Examples of such initiatives abound even though they may not be featured in global headlines.

In Oregon, a lawsuit filed by 21 young plaintiffs in 2015 to establish a federal, constitutional right to a livable planet is still making its way through appeal courts, despite opposition first by the Trump administration and then by the Biden administration. If the case is successful, any federal policies that enable more fossil fuel development could be challenged as unconstitutional.

At the state policy level, California has long taken the lead on climate, although the fossil-fuel industry has won legislative battles delaying the most ambitious plans. Still, in April the state mandated that 35 percent of new passenger vehicles sold there by 2026 be powered by batteries or hydrogen, up from the current level of 12.4 percent. Since California state standards set the context for the U.S. auto industry in general, the effect will be multiplied nationwide.

In Latin America, Chile is well on its way to following Ecuador in establishing “rights of nature’ in its proposed new constitution to be voted on in September.

And in South Africa, a Climate Change Bill introduced in February has opened a door to begin to reduce the country’s dependence on coal. While it still has loopholes, it is likely to be strengthened in the wake of the catastrophic floods that swept the country’s KwaZulu-Natal province in April, officially claiming more than 435 lives and discrediting the energy minister’s defense of continued reliance on coal.

“People Power Is What’s Going to Make the Real and Huge Difference.’

On a parallel track, key corporate campaigns are gaining momentum. One such campaign demanded that six of the largest U.S. banks, which have pumped more than $1 trillion into the industry from 2016-2020, stop financing the development of fossil fuels. Despite comments from industry spokespeople minimizing the votes in favor, the results have already dwarfed early anti-apartheid proxy votes that grew into broad campaigns culminating in financial sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Elsewhere, a campaign by South African traditional communities and environmentalists to halt fossil fuel exploration off the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast won an indictment against Shell Oil. Moreover, a host of practical and creative energy-saving solutions are coming from architects, visual artists, and textile designers.

In Uganda, Fridays for the Future, led by 22-year-old Hilda Nakabuye, has mobilized over 25,000 activists. Although campaigners in East Africa, such as her fellow Ugandan Vanessa Nakate, have gained the greatest international visibility, her counterparts are mobilizing in both cities and villages in almost every country on the continent. They are implementing the call eloquently presented by Kenyan activist Elizabeth Wahuti to COP26 in Glasgow to “please open your hearts.’

The delegates there, including representatives of governments and fossil-fuel companies themselves, clapped politely. But the future, noted Wahuti, the founder of a local tree-planting organization, would depend on those who themselves felt the impact of climate-caused drought on their communities.

“People power is what is going to make the real and huge difference in the world today,’ she told the delegates. “It must if there is to be a tomorrow.’

The war in Ukraine through an African lens

From the ‘with us or against us’ frame to the disproportionate fallout of the commodities crisis, these countries are non-aligned for a reason.

Graça Machel reflects on The Elders’ May board meeting in South Africa, The Elders’ meeting with South Africa’s President Ramaphosa, the urgent need for a just transition to address the climate crisis, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Adapted from The Elders’ monthly newsletter. Sign up for regular email updates from The Elders.

Dear friends,

We are at a critical juncture in human history. How our leaders act now will determine the state of our shared world for generations to come.

One man who understood such responsibility was our founder and my late husband, Nelson Mandela. When he brought the Elders together in 2007 he tasked us, a small group of global leaders, to use our experience and collective voice to champion peace, justice, and human rights worldwide. Last month, we returned to our spiritual home of South Africa to mark our fifteenth year, celebrate the life of our dearly missed first chair Desmond Tutu, and conduct our bi-annual Elders Board Meeting.

The challenges we discussed were grave: the climate crisis, the inequality of the pandemic recovery and the risks of future pandemics, conflict and atrocity in Ukraine and elsewhere. But we also recalled the strength of our dear friend Arch, whose great wisdom, moral clarity, and ability to remind us of our common humanity is deeply missed but continues to guide us.

I went on to meetings with South Africa’s President Ramaphosain Pretoria alongside my fellow Elders, Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Our productive discussions with the President reiterated the need for finance from the Global North, promised at COP26 in Glasgow, to fund a just energy transition in South Africa. We also discussed the ongoing inequity of COVID-19 vaccine supply in the developing world and the importance of South Africa’s National Health Insurance reforms.

Ahead of the meeting we had the opportunity to spend time with members of the Presidential Climate Commission, a group of inspiring civil society leaders who are fighting for a fair society and climate justice. Their commitment to a just transition to renewables in South Africa – one that that does not abandon fossil fuel workers and their affected communities – reminds us of the passion and commitment of ordinary people for change, and the desire to get it right.

Such strength of purpose must also be shown by rich-world partner countries who promised South Africa $8.5 billion to fund such initiatives at COP26. This money is needed now, and in full: no dilution, no equivocation.

This need for a people-centred approach to the climate crisis was also emphasised by Mary Robinson and Ban Ki-moon at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, ahead of The Elders’ gathering in Cape Town, and in subsequent media interviews by Mary Robinson the following week.

During our board discussions and at our meeting with President Ramaphosa, we also spoke at length about the conflict in Ukraine. As well as the devastation endured by the Ukrainian people directly, across the world over 260 million people unconnected to the conflict are facing extreme hunger and poverty due to the impact of war on global food and energy prices. This is compounding existing inequalities and the COVID-19 crisis.

We are all impacted by this war and world leaders cannot sit on the fence: Russia’s aggression must be condemned. The war must be brought to an end and peace restored. The Elders reaffirmed this in a Cape Town Statement: all efforts must be made by global leaders to ensure accountability and justice and to bring peace, not escalation, to this terrible conflict.

In the face of persistent injustice and violence across the world, it can be easy to fall into despair. But looking away is not in the spirit of Madiba, or Arch, or the people fighting for change in their communities and countries right now. We can all help to forge a better world if we raise our voices and demand action. Many of the problems we face today are human-made, but humans can be the solution too. The power is with us.

Thank you for your continued support,

Graça Machel

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