Climate Change: Lessons from Wangari Maathai

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Photo: Pexels

This year, added to a pandemic that has fundamentally rattled our global order, there have been fires in Siberia, in Australia, in the United States, droughts across the Great Plains, heatwaves in Europe, flooding in Africa and what is possibly the highest temperature reliably recorded on Earth. If you tuned in to the back and forth between Trump and Biden two weeks ago, you may have noticed that the long-awaited climate question in the presidential debate broke a 20-year silent streak from moderators on the crisis.

It is almost unforgivable that in all these years, climate change has not featured in a presidential debate. The World Wildlife Organisation has declared 2020 a critical year for our future and our climate. We are in flux, and the pandemic has revealed our fault lines. As we stand on a precipice, where we either hurtle off a climate cliff or effect change, we must evoke the legacy of Wangari Maathai. After all, there would be no Greta Thunbergs or Vanessa Nakates of the world if it was not for Maathai.

Upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 2004, Maathai, a fiercely outspoken Kenyan conservationist told an audience, “Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.” Her achievements were vast. She was a pathfinder, the first female researcher from East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree and the first female professor in Kenya. Though a commendable curriculum vitae by 2004, a Nobel Peace was undoubtedly out of the ordinary for a conservationist – particularly one who at first glance seemed to be merely planting trees. Her movement was far more significant than just planting trees.

As she put it, “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” Hers was the undeniable power of one. Maathai introduced the concept of community-based tree planting that she eventually became a broad-based grassroots organisation called the Green Belt Movement in 1977. Over the years, the movement has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. Still, it has gone far beyond that – the focus is on constructing climate resilience and empowering communities, particularly women, to sharpen democratic space and sustainable livelihoods. She became renowned for her fight against land grabbing and for protecting water catchment areas and green spaces in Kenya. As Maathai explained, “Listening to the women talk about water, about energy, about nutrition, it all boiled down to the environment. I came to understand the linkage between environmental degradation and the felt needs of the communities.”

Though we are almost 45 years on from the creation of the Green Belt Movement, these challenges are perhaps even more prevalent now. As we know, human beings and our wellbeing are inextricably linked with the environment. With renewed debates around the Paris agreement, young activists who have come to the fore and concerns over climate change, biodiversity, and ocean health, it has become increasingly apparent that environmental issues constitute some of our most urgent and large-scale challenges.

This, undeniably, comes as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) continues to unfold before us. Our attention cannot just be on embracing the 4IR if we are not also scrutinising issues of sustainability. How do we harness 4IR technologies so that development is not dependent on exhausting finite resources and increasing emissions? Science, technology and innovation can enable development, primarily when our global challenges include water shortages, food insecurity and deep inequities. The past industrial revolutions have placed enormous strain on the planet.

As a report by the World Economic Forum puts it, “For 10,000 years, the Earth’s relative stability has enabled civilisations to thrive. However, in a short space of time, industrialisation has put this stability at risk.” The question is whether we act and respond with agility. It is through the actions of activists that climate change has come to dominate conversations around the world. But awareness is not sufficient. It is action that is required.

It has been predicted by climate scientists that the African continent will be hardest hit by climate change. The United Nations has declared that Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced more frequent and more intense climate extremes compared to other regions. According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index for 2015, seven of the ten countries most at risk from climate change are in Africa.

In the last 25 years, we have seen decreases in rainfall in Sub-Saharan Africa. Headlines about Cape Town being the first city to run out of water a few years ago come to mind. There have been increases in weather-related disasters. Furthermore, the mortality rates in the drought-stricken areas are higher than in other regions. The statistics for Africa are damning. According to the UN, by the end of this year, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa could experience increased water stress due to climate change while in some countries harvests from rain-dependent agriculture could decrease by up to 50%. Global warming of 2˚C is expected to put over 50% of the continent’s population at risk of undernourishment. By 2040, climate change is expected to lead to the equivalence of 2 to 4% annual loss in GDP.

Africa is the least emitter of carbons; nonetheless, it is the most affected by climate change. Climate change has had a damaging impact on the agricultural sector, on which many economies on the continent still depend. Changes in precipitation patterns, increases in temperatures and extreme weather events disrupt entire industries and reduce food availability and impact food quality.

Then, of course, is the challenge of energy as many African economies are growing fast and require sufficient energy. Honing on South Africa as a case study, we are struggling to keep the lights on with our existing energy strategies which quite frankly place more strain on the environment. Additionally, the demographic trends show that there has been a lot of growth in urban areas, and Africa is urbanising faster than any other part of the world. For instance, it is estimated that African cities will double in population by 2050. This will bring its own challenges. For example, in South Africa, service delivery has been heavily impacted as municipalities are incapable of keeping up with the swift pace of urbanisation.

Amid this fraught context, what is it that we can learn from Maathai? There are some givens. Firstly, climate change, despite what the naysayers will have you believe, is undoubtedly real and worsening. Secondly, the pandemic and the effective global lockdown has all but confirmed that we are currently in the 4IR. How do we reconcile the two with the lessons laid out by Maathai? Maathai displayed a form of activism, which we need to learn to emulate in this context. It is not easy in the African setting for a woman to trail blaze in a field which is male-dominated and often quite fossilised.

She effectively married the concepts of sustainable development and climate change, speaking to not just Africa but the world. As we undergo another industrial revolution, we have to replicate this phenomenon. Indeed, the 4IR must be accompanied by a focus on the green economy. I would go so far as to say that we cannot afford to see a fourth wave of industrialisation if we do not go about it sustainably. The goal then is not merely creating another industrial revolution but a sustainable revolution that speaks to our challenges. 4IR technologies can transform traditional industries to address climate change, deliver water and food security, build smart and sustainable cities, and protect biodiversity and human wellbeing.

Universities have the innate potential to unlock logjams that may emerge directly or indirectly due to the 4IR. Research can be redirected to exploring meaningful and innovative solutions to real-world problems. Now, as we forge our way in the 4IR and emphasise the need for African solutions to African problems, as the likes of Kwame Nkrumah long argued for, there is much we can take away from Maathai that stretches beyond environmental concerns.

In the link between ecology and culture, Maathai argued that the challenge for Africa is to reclaim land, cultures and resources. As she put it, “If the soil is denuded and the waters are polluted, the air is poisoned, and the mineral riches are mined and sold beyond the continent, nothing will be left that we can call our own. Our real work is reclamation – bringing back what is essential so we can move forward. Planting trees, speaking our languages, telling our stories are all part of the same act of conservation. We need to protect our local foods, recall our mother tongues and rediscover our communal character.”

In conclusion, let us mobilise more Wangari Mathais to tackle the problem of climate change and put the African continent on the new growth trajectory.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He can be followed on twitter at @txm1971.