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The grim realities of Western climate change discourse on Africa

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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) prepared for elections in December 2023, and during this time, The Atlantic published an article by Senior Editor Ross Andersen, initially titled “War in the Congo Has Kept the Planet Cooler.” After social media uproar, the headline was changed to “The Grim Ironies of Climate Change.”

The article, despite the title change, remains problematic in how it addresses climate change, particularly in relation to Africa. The core argument posits that decades of conflict in the DRC have limited mass deforestation, framing it as a “grim irony of climate change.” While Andersen’s basic thesis may be accurate, the article reflects broader issues in mainstream Global Northern perspectives on Africa and climate change.

The initial framing of the DRC’s intact forest as a “grim irony” reveals a Western-centric viewpoint that devalues the lives of central Africans. The term implies an equivalence between positive and negative aspects, overlooking the profound human impact of conflicts in the region. This perspective may be casual if one regards the positives of less deforestation and the negatives of intractable war as similarly abstract, but it becomes harder to justify when confronted with the pain, heartbreak, loss, and devastation endured by millions due to conflicts in the Congo.

Another example of the article’s casual devaluing of African lives is Andersen’s decision to limit the focus to deforestation, overlooking other environmental harms exacerbated by conflict. The narrow thesis brackets out critical issues such as unregulated mining, heavy metal pollution, and threats to endangered species. Armed groups exploit mines during conflict, employing child labor and causing widespread environmental damage. This includes heavy metal pollution, leading to birth defects and forcing communities to relocate. Ongoing conflict in the DRC has also contributed to the critical endangerment of 190 species, including the Grauer gorilla population, which has declined by nearly 80% over the past two decades.

The article’s exclusive emphasis on deforestation reflects the priorities of the Global North, where the reduction of global carbon emissions is the primary concern for international climate action. Rich countries focus on mitigating future climate damage rather than addressing immediate environmental concerns affecting African communities. From a North American perspective, the importance of the DRC’s rich environment lies in its forests’ ability to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. All other environmental concerns, with devastating consequences for the lives, livelihoods, safety, and well-being of millions of central Africans, are relegated to a secondary status.

As the climate crisis intensifies, the Global North increasingly looks to Africa’s vast resources and natural carbon sinks for salvation. It is crucial to question where African peoples fit into these narratives. The implicit treatment of Africans as disposable and doomed, potentially collateral damage in pursuit of reduced carbon emissions, raises ethical concerns. A more humane perspective would recognize African communities in their full humanity, exploring how the DRC can protect its forests under conditions of greater peace without sidelining urgent environmental and humanitarian concerns of the present.

An alternative article could maintain the same relationship between conflict and deforestation but shift the focus. Instead of making deforestation the main “grimly ironic” point, it could start with the premise of the complex relationship between conflict and the environment in the DRC. The article could then explore how the DRC can protect its forests under conditions of greater peace while acknowledging and addressing the broader environmental and humanitarian challenges faced by the region.

By  NTERANYA GINGA, TSHIMUNDU, KOKO GINGA & J. MUNROE

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