Elite Stretching Exercises to Warm Up the Conference of Polluters 28
In the months prior to the 2023 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference (hosted in Dubai), summits held by global, ‘multipolar’ and continental-African elites are worthy of consideration in part because their roles are the basis for pessimism about low-income African communities’ ability to withstand further extreme weather events. In the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa bloc, with its new (high-fossil) BRICS+ members from the Middle East, as well as in African Union, G20 and United Nations summiting in recent months, self-interest and internecine competition prevailed. Yet whether in Europe’s new carbon import tariffs or the push for African emissions trading, contradictions are emerging between imperial and sub-imperial climate powers. Still, two overarching elite objectives remain: first, to limit emissions cuts even if that threatens many species’ survival; and second, to avoid liability for ‘Loss & Damage,’ adaptation and other compensation expenses. A reassertion of climate justice and an expansion of African activism are in order, with some oppositional seeds beginning to bear fruit in even the most brazen sub-imperial climate power, South Africa.
Many African cities have recently taken a pounding due to rain storms amplified by the climate crisis, including devastating floods leaving thousands dead. In the Mediterranean coastal town of Derna, Libya in September 2023, more than 13,000 residents died after two poorly-maintained dams collapsed when ‘Medicane’ (Mediterranean hurricane) Daniel dropped 400 mm of rain in 24 hours. (Usually September’s rainfall there is 1.5 mm.) In Blantyre, Malawi in February-March 2023, Cyclone Freddy arrived – from Australia – and killed 158 in mudslides. In Kinshasa, in December 2022, an estimated 200 died in flooding. In Lokoja and many Nigerian cities from June-October 2022, there were at least 600 fatalities. In Durban, South Africa in April 2022, a ‘Rain Bomb’ killed more than 500 after 351 mm fell in 24 hours. And in 2019’s Cyclone Idai, 90 percent of Beira, Mozambique was under water, with more than 2000 fatalities in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Likewise, droughts hit African cities particularly hard because water-demand management was generally not in place, as witnessed by Cape Town nearly suffering ‘Day Zero’ in 2018, a crisis repeated several times since in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, including the main city of Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth). The Western Cape’s late-September flooding included 300 mm in one day in Franshoek (near Cape Town), a record – with at least 11 dead (mainly because rising water led to the electrocution of eight people who had informal, unsafe connections as a result of the state’s failure to implement its Free Basic Electricity policy). In Somalia in November, 29 died in the towns of Baidoa, Bardere, Luuq, and Galkacyo due to record rainfall and flooding.
Dating to the early 1980s, many an ‘IMF Riot’ in Africa has followed food shortages or price hikes associated with austerity conditions (Walton and Seddon 1994). In 2022, soaring energy prices and unrepayable interest on foreign debt in a context of fast-declining African currency values raised tensions and protest levels in urban and rural areas alike (Bond 2023). African peasant livelihoods are even more difficult to repair in the wake of extreme climate incidents, especially drying soil, desertification, flooding, wild fires, deforestation and sea level rise. The Horn of Africa and South Africa recently demonstrated that when long-lasting droughts break, the rain can unleash unprecedented locust plagues. These are formidable problems for Africa’s majority in rural areas. The capacity to make demands for reparations is ever more important, not only in relation to climate crisis but also as a result of the increase in multinational-corporate extractive industries – including fossil fuel and mineral commodities whose prices rose dramatically in 2020-22 – taking over Africa’s increasingly-scarce arable land.
If we pose the question, the way Jun Borras et al (2022) did for Journal of Peasant Studies readers in 2022, the global scale appears ominous, given the adverse balance of forces: “What combinations of narratives and strategies frame climate change and the institutionalized responses to it in agrarian settings? What exclusions and inclusions result from this?”
Agrarian settings are very diverse, but by considering monolithic elite summitry, the problems faced in agrarian societies become clearer, as do activists’ countervailing approaches. The near-total exclusion of African people’s and environmental interests from global and ‘multipolar’ climate policy appears certain at COP28 and in the following months, given what we can learn from jockeying at mid-2023 international leadership summits. Prospects remain low for new global (as well as national and municipal) policies, programs and funding that can genuinely address the climate crisis. This was clearly witnessed through the ways that preliminary meetings established narratives for the 28th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties – ‘COP28’ – to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2023.
Climate Justice (CJ) narratives include interrelated components that are typically demanded of global and continental elites by Africa’s most critical civil society advocates: slowing and reversing Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) with genuine ‘decarbonization’ and appropriate carbon-sequestration approaches; promoting agro-ecological strategies for food production and soil restoration; assuring that adequate “Loss & Damage” payments go to victims to rebuild after extreme weather events; climate-proofing the built and social infrastructure (known as adaptation and resilience); and compensating Africans for not undergoing the high-carbon development trajectory the West and BRICS+ economies (Mwenda and Bond 2020). Each of these areas is discussed in the Conclusion, along with cases of CJ leadership (especially from South Africa). But can many more CJ activists in African civil (and uncivil) society influence their national and local leaders along these lines, and mobilize international-solidarity support, especially when it comes to participation in an increasingly fossil-biased United Nations process?
In deploying such critical narratives, debilitating strategic divisions typically emerge between climate advocates: insiders versus outsiders; CJ radicals versus ‘Climate Action’ moderates; and Global South versus Global North activists. Very rarely is a clear division of labor established, that can assist in identifying optimal roles for uncivil-society ‘tree-shakers’ whose work assists the civilized-society ‘jam-makers’ integrated into UNFCCC summitting (Bond 2018). And given the balance of power in relation to all these CJ demands (with the exception of the UN’s tepid, assimilation-oriented lip service to identity politics), there is very little prospect for progress at coming global climate summits. Following Dubai in 2023, the COP29 will be hosted by an Eastern European city (to be determined) in 2024. Perhaps only in late 2025 when the UNFCCC moves to the Amazon (Belém, Brazil), will change be possible.
What, then, are the current power relations, and how do African climate narratives adjust, in view of several major elite summits in August-September 2023, and the increasingly pro-fossil standpoint of the major historic African emitter, South Africa?
COP28’s adverse balance of forces, thanks to South African and Kenyan sub-imperialism
Signs of elite-Africa’s weaknesses within the UNFCCC are legion, especially in mid-2023 when two men were seen as the continent’s main leaders: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Kenyan President William Ruto. The former was a coal-mining tycoon (through Shanduka, which he owned until 2014 when he became deputy president), and has ambitions of a recarbonization of the South African economy through what in 2019 he termed the ‘game-changing’ offshore oil and gas deposits identified especially by TotalEnergies and Shell (although much exploration has been foiled by CJ activists in recent years) (Ramaphosa 2019). The latter, a self-described ‘hustler’ leader, witnessed his “profile rise with climate summit hustle,” as Africa Energy reported: “All of Kenyan President William Ruto’s personal energy, facility with words, public charm and ruthless cultivation of influential allies was on show” when he hosted the Africa Climate Summit (Marks 2023). Ruto’s opening speech set the tone: “We must see in green growth not just a climate imperative but also a fountain of multibillion-dollar opportunities that the world is poised to capitalize” (Ngam 2023).
But Ruto’s ‘influential allies’ – especially New York-based consultancy McKinsey, whose devastating role in Kenya Airways and South Africa’s Eskom led to international condemnations, as well as European Union Commission President Ursula van der Leyen, who is responsible for the world’s largest carbon trading scheme – also appeared to influence him. Critics across African civil society, organized as the “Real African Climate Summit” (2023), despaired over the hustling of Ruto:
“The so-called ‘think tanks committee’ set up to drive negotiations at the Summit is chaired by individuals who represent UK and US-based organizations and not African organizations. The content for the Summit – including major initiatives – is being led by McKinsey, with the World Resources Institute now competing to shape the agenda and its outcomes. Both are headquartered in the United States and do not champion Africa’s interests. Some African organizations that advance Western agenda have also been given a disproportionately huge role in the organization of the event. The result is a Summit agenda that foregrounds the position and interests of the West, namely, carbon markets, carbon sequestration and ‘climate positive’ approaches… These concepts and false solutions are led by Western interests while being marketed as African priorities. In truth, though, these approaches will embolden wealthy nations and large corporations to continue polluting the world, much to Africa’s detriment.”
As a reflection of that concern, the second sentence in Van der Leyen’s keynote speech praised Ruto: “I very much welcome Kenya’s ‘Climate Change Act 2023’ that was launched during this Summit and that puts strong emphasis on carbon markets.” The civil society critique made the opposite point:
“Avoid all false solutions such as carbon markets and geo-engineering which are designed to encourage wealthy countries and people to continue polluting and turning Africa into a dumping ground and field for technological trials. Implement and adopt climate policies that promote a just and equitable phase-out of all new oil, gas and coal projects on the African continent in line with Africa’s development interests and the recommendations of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, International Energy Agency and other scientific organizations by cutting public and private financing” (Real African Climate Summit 2023).
And their accusation of outside manipulation was more poignant because only fewer than half Africa’s 54 leaders attended the Summit (e.g., Ramaphosa choosing instead to go to Emmerson Mnangagwa’s disputed Zimbabwe election celebration and inauguration). The AU itself suffers relatively weak leaders: as chair, Comoros Islands President Azali Assoumani (who came to power in a 1999 coup) and Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki. The AU’s own judicial Tribunal had, three days earlier, condemned Faki for “brazenness” and “audacity,” and for having “become a law unto himself,” resulting in “lawlessness” and “reputational damage.” Six African countries were, at the time, suspended from the AU due to military takeovers: Gabon, Niger, Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
The problem of local elites undermining the continent’s interests is an old one, reminiscent of Walter Rodney’s (1972, 41-42) warning (in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa): “the operation of the imperialist system bears major responsibility for African economic retardation by draining African wealth and by making it impossible to develop more rapidly the resources of the continent. Secondly, one has to deal with those who manipulate the system and those who are either agents or unwitting accomplices of the said system.”
Climate politics is an increasingly important example, dating at least to the 2009 Copenhagen COP15, where leadership of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) accused the lead African negotiator, Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi, of conspiring with the conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy to “sell out the lives and hopes of Africans for a pittance” (Mwenda and Bond 2020). At that summit, G77-bloc negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping (then a Sudanese diplomat, subsequently exiled) explained to a PACJA meeting how some African delegations were “either lazy or had been ‘bought off’ by the industrialized nations. He singled out South Africa, saying that some members of that delegation had actively sought to disrupt the unity of the bloc” (Welz 2009).
That role continues, insofar as by far the highest GHG emitter in Africa, South Africa, has in recent months abused the diplomatic power of Environment Minister Barbara Creecy. She is a unique politician, e.g, as the only white ruling-party member elected to the African National Congress National (ANC) Executive Committee in 2021. She is able to co-exist with a strongly pro-fossil ANC leadership – not just Ramaphosa but openly pro-coal Energy Minister and ruling-party chairperson Gwede Mantashe (who in October 2023 accused climate activists of being CIA agents) – because of her deregulatory approach. To illustrate, Creecy’s bias reflects not only the permissions she regularly grants for offshore methane gas and onshore fracking, but also that the South African government and energy parastatal Eskom seek to introduce two gas-fired plants (4000MW strong) in the next few years by using 44 percent of the ‘Just Energy Transition Partnership’ (JETP) funding they raise, and by keeping coal-fired power plants open much longer (even in violation of JETP financial deals) (Bond 2024).
Indeed, Creecy spent August-October 2023 approving several high-pollution, high-emissions projects proposed by multinational corporations. Her support for TotalEnergies’ plan to drill for oil and gas offshore Cape Town required her to reject a 2022 court judgment against a similar Shell Oil proposal for the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. She supported oceanic seismic blasting near the Namibian border by an Australian firm (Searcher) that seeks what geologists predict could be billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas deposits. Creecy’s excuse in these cases is that the Makhanda High Court’s September 2022 finding against offshore gas exploration – made by three judges, in part based on the refusal to take climate considerations seriously – was still (a year later) under appeal at the Supreme Court. Both Shell and its local ally, the former leftwing trade unionist and subsequent entrepreneur Johnny Copelyn, have been generous contributors to the South African ruling party, but courts such as Makhanda’s remain relatively independent of party-based favoritism (in contrast, say to Zimbabwe or the United States of America).
At the same time, Creecy approved a pollution waiver for the continent’s largest coal-fired power station (Kusile), so that the Eskom plant – generating 4800MW if operating at full steam – can emit lethal sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide without Flue Gas Desulfurization, permission which scientists predict will kill several hundred nearby residents. Also in 2023, she was sued by community-based environmentalists (the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance) for allowing the Indian steel giant ArcelorMittal’s foundries to emit toxic hydrogen sulfide gases above legal limits. Finally, her promotion of a controversial biodiversity offset to be managed by a poorly-resourced provincial parks agency assisted a notorious Turkish floating fossil-fuel energy generator, Karpowership, whose Liquefied Natural Gas-powered ships she gave permission to operate from three sensitive harbors in spite of sustained environmentalist opposition on grounds of the ships’ threat to local air quality, to marine life and to South Africa’s GHG emissions budget.
This approach extends to destructive continental activities, and indeed South African sub-imperial climate and broader environmental damage is not new. As Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros (2011, 19) explained in 2011, a conflict of interest against the African continent is a feature of the BRICS’ relationship to imperialism: “The degree of participation in the Western military project is also different from one case to the next, although, one might say, there is a ‘schizophrenia’ to all this, typical of ‘sub-imperialism’.” To illustrate, more than 1200 SA National Defense Force troops have intervened in Mozambique since 2021 – at the direct behest of French President Emmanuel Macron and to the applause of the U.S. African Command, on behalf of TotalEnergies’ $20 billion Liquefied Natural Gas facility (against a local Islamic insurgency) (Bond 2022).
This follows the Pretoria army’s deployment since 2013 in a disastrous UN ‘peacekeeping’ force in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the vicinity of not only minerals exploited by South African firms, but also increasingly, fossil fuels (such as a Lake Albert $10 billion oil concession that in 2010 was granted to Khulubusa Zuma, nephew of the then South African president Jacob). A similar Central African Republic deployment followed South African extractive-industry capital but was curtailed when in 2013, militants overthrew a small SANDF force in Bangui. For Samir Amin (writing in his post-humous autobiography), such incidents reveal how the shift from apartheid sub-imperialism to post-apartheid neoliberalism meant “nothing has changed. South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced, still dominated as it is by the Anglo-American mining monopolies” (Amin 2019).
In early 2023, Creecy was chosen to manage crucial UNFCCC functions by Sultan Al Jaber, the presiding officer from the host UAE, who tellingly also serves as chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (a firm whose offices intervened in conference management in mid-2023 notwithstanding the obvious conflict of interest). Creecy will serve as co-leader (alongside the Danish environment minister) of the Global Stock Take (GST) – i.e., measuring how seriously national states have cut their economy’s emissions – having in 2022 co-chaired a COP27 committee assessing mitigation. Her aide Richard Sherman co-manages Loss & Damage Fund planning, a process that in October 2023 nearly broke down, he confessed: “It’s late, we’re tired, we’re frustrated. We have, to a large extent, failed you” (Sengupta and Goswami 2023).
No African delegation has ever had such climate-policy influence, at least since South Africa hosted the COP17 in Durban in 2011 followed by Morocco in 2016, on both occasions serving emitters’ interests (as discussed below). The 2023 GST exercise is anticipated to not only avoid crucial “phase out fossil fuels” language, but also greenwash the world’s combustion and leakage of methane, notwithstanding its 85-times greater potency as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 20-year period. South Africa’s gas pipelines became notorious for eruptions in 2023, even in central Johannesburg – as massive methane gas development and pipeline projects were being put in place across the Indian and Atlantic coastlines and through on-shore fracking proposals.
Even if Creecy had wanted to address climate seriously, the global terrain is unfavorable. To illustrate, four August-September summits in quick succession set the stage for a disastrous COP28, allowing both the UAE and South Africa to play what can be considered a loyal ‘sub-imperial’ role in alliance with the West and BRICS. First, the August meeting of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa BRICS bloc in Johannesburg expanded the group to 11 members, including three – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran – with extensive emissions and oil or gas production, and two others, Egypt and Argentina, with enormous reserves now being tapped. Second, the inaugural African Climate Summit occurred in Nairobi in early September. Third, the next weekend, the G20 met in New Delhi. And fourth, in New York City, from September 18-22, the UN General Assembly gathered world leaders. These were important moments in defining the African continental elite’s narratives, strategies, and alliances when it comes to global climate policy – and all fall short of the bare minimum required to protect Africans from worsening climate crisis.
Setting the UNFCCC stage by limiting the scope for emissions cuts and ‘polluter pays’ liability
Three UNFCCC COP precursors require mentioning for context – the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen, the 2011 COP17 in Durban, and the 2015 COP21 in Paris – and power relations were also revealed in remarks by the leading U.S. climate official, John Kerry, in July 2023.
The Copenhagen Accord represented the end of global climate accountability, what with a secret meeting of five countries trumping the rest of the world, agreeing that a ‘bottom up’ voluntary system would replace the Kyoto Protocol’s binding provisions. As Bill McKibben (2009) complained of Barack Obama:
“He blew up the United Nations. The idea that there’s a world community that means something has disappeared tonight… when you get too close to the center of things that count – the fossil fuel that’s at the center of our economy – you can forget about it. We’re not interested. You’re a bother, and when you sink beneath the waves, we don’t want to hear much about it. The dearest hope of the American right for 50 years was essentially realized because in the end coal is at the center of America’s economy. We already did this with war and peace, and now we’ve done it with global warming. What exactly is the point of the U.N. now? He formed a league of super-polluters, and would-be super-polluters.”
Their damage would be long-lasting, yet the super-polluter leaders of ‘BASIC’ – Brazil’s Ignacio Lula da Silva, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, India’s Manmohan Singh and China’s Wen Jiabao – who were joined by Obama at that UNFCCC meeting subsequently left office, although Lula returned in 2023, in time to learn that the Amazon forest had inexorably shifted from carbon sink to net emitter. Meanwhile, Zuma appeared again on the climate scene in mid-2023 (just days before being pardoned for contempt of court in his ongoing KwaZulu-Natal corruption case): in Zimbabwe, he marketed ‘two million’ carbon offset credits from Russian Siberia – which were ridiculed as worthless and ultimately rejected by the Victoria Falls conference organizers (Lang 2023). Such obvious scamming aside, Zuma’s 2009 behavior at Copenhagen was consistent with the needs of the major polluting countries. So in 2011 during COP17 hosting duties, his leadership was celebrated by US State Department negotiator Todd Stern (2011), who told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of the “significant success for the United States” in Durban, particularly the major historic polluter’s objectives in limiting liability, or what in the UNFCCC is termed Combined But Differentiated Responsibility.
The unwillingness of the U.S. to pay reparations, joined by BASIC and other large emitters, was confirmed in Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. According to Saleemul Huq and Roger-Mark De Souza (2015) of the Woodrow Wilson Center, “A concession by developing countries on liability and compensation was reflected in the Agreement’s decision text, which notes that there is no possibility of claiming liability and compensation for Loss and Damage,” i.e. costs of extreme climate-change incidents. And on 13 July 2023, Clinton’s replacement as U.S. Secretary of State during the Paris negotiations, John Kerry, testified to the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee (2023) as the Biden Administration’s climate envoy. He was asked by conservative Florida Republican Brian Mast about climate reparations:
Mast: “Are you planning to commit America to climate reparations: that is to say, we have to pay some other country because they had a flood or they had a hurricane or a typhoon for awhile?”
Kerry: “No. Under no circumstances.”
Mast: “Very good, I’m glad to hear you say that I do have a no.”
Kerry: “Why don’t you create an exclamation point beside it.”
Mast: “I will write in an exclamation point for you and I’m glad that we have agreement on that I don’t know if my black pen will work. We’ll see. There we go, there’s your exclamation point!”
Kerry: “… There is the finalization of the fund that was created, the so-called loss and damage fund, which is simply a recognition. It does not have any liability in it. We specifically put phrases in that negate any possibility of liability.”
Those last five chilling words represent Washington’s outright rejection of ‘polluter pays,’ entailing a de facto default on climate debt, a rejection of legitimate liability obligations that are provided for in most national environmental management systems. Such a stance also serves Pretoria’s and the BRICS’ interests, for they too owe reparations.
BRICS+ climate sabotage in Johannesburg
The climate orientation of the BRICS and now BRICS+ (with six new members) is self-interested, as witnessed in sub-imperial/imperial unity with the United States, Europe and other large emitters in 2009, 2011 and 2015, as well as in preparations for the COP28. That self-interest reflects 11 countries which produce 58 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 43 percent of the world’s oil supply.
But no matter how much the BRICS – and specifically BASIC – leaders cohere with the imperialist powers in opposing adequate emissions cuts and reparations, there is also what Brazilian dependencia theorist Ruy Mauro Marini (1972) termed ‘antagonistic cooperation’: internecine conflicts following from domestic modes of capital accumulation that conflict with those of the global powers. To be sure, in practical (not rhetorical) respects, most of the BRICS are dominated by neoliberal financial, pro-trade ruling-class factions, consistent with destructive global capitalism, and in spite of sometimes extreme territorial conflict (in Russia/Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, Central Asia, the Himalaya Mountains and the South China Sea) and financial ‘de-dollarization’ debates, there is a great deal of multilateral policy overlap at the UNFCCC.
And yet the carbon-intensive character of antagonistic cooperation has set the stage for a revealing climate-related contradiction with the West in relation to inclement ‘climate sanctions’ in the form of Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms (CBAMs). Starting in the European Union in October 2023 (but with tariffs only being applied in 2026), and likely followed by other Western importers, the CBAM adds tariffs to imports with high levels of embedded GHGs, where the exporting economy does not have adequate carbon taxes (thus representing an implicit subsidy of carbon emissions). In August, the BRICS’ Johannesburg Declaration complained,
“We oppose trade barriers including those under the pretext of tackling climate change imposed by certain developed countries and reiterate our commitment to enhancing coordination on these issues. We underline that measures taken to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss must be WTO-consistent… We express our concern at any WTO inconsistent discriminatory measure that will distort international trade, risk new trade barriers and shift burden of addressing climate change and biodiversity loss to BRICS members and developing countries” (emphasis added) (BRICS 2023).
The phrasing here represents a version of climate denialism, because there are already extreme distortions in international trade, investment and finance due to the capitalist system’s failure to internalize corporate GHG emissions, pollution and resource depletion into price calculations. Given the threat climate catastrophes and ecocide pose to the world, especially to the BRICS+ countries, the desire to retain prevailing anti-ecological distortions is “the greatest market failure the world has seen,” according to British economist Nick Stern (2007). Indeed, repeatedly since 2021, the host South African ruling class – both state and corporate – reiterated that coming Western climate sanctions against energy-intensive exports are the main reason the economy must decarbonize. Because of the excessive coal-fired power embedded in the country’s exported products, a tariff will be imposed by countries that have adopted higher carbon prices – $100/tonne in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, compared to Pretoria’s $0.35/tonne – so as to prevent ‘carbon leakage’.
Such tariffs could well be devastating to firms in South Africa’s so-called Energy Intensive Users Groups firms: 27 mainly Western multinational corporations which consume 42 percent of the country’s scarce electricity largely for processing non-renewable mineral resources. They logically resist decarbonization because there is less ‘baseload power’ and higher upfront capital costs associated with solar, wind and storage. The BRICS complain about tariffs that, “under the pretext of tackling climate change, [will be] imposed by certain developed countries.”
This grievance has, since 2010, been articulated by South Africans with a strong commitment to high-carbon development, none more vociferously than former Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies. Writing for the African Climate Foundation, Davies (2023) argued, “CBAM is a measure that, in my view, needs to be rejected, opposed and challenged in any way or forum possible. Developing a strategy for this is doubly urgent in view of its propensity to be replicated in several other jurisdictions.” The immediate stakes for South Africa, he suggested, were losses of $1.5 billion in annual steel, aluminium and iron exports to Europe, with chemicals, plastics and even automobiles to soon follow.
Davies (2023) did not consider the positive side of losing those exports, namely that South Africa would thereby suffer lower declines in its stock of non-renewable resources (i.e., the minerals that go into many of the processed metals) and therefore would benefit from retaining natural wealth for future generations. Nor did he factor in the electricity costs of the deep mining, smelting, metals processing, petrochemicals, internal-combustion-engine automobiles and other high-carbon exports. The merits of redirecting that power to labour-intensive industries, small businesses and households are obvious to any South African suffering sustained load-shedding. He ignored the Social Cost of Carbon from such energy-intensive industries, which if measured at $3000/tonne of CO2 emitted, and then applied to the 500 megatonnes of annual national emissions, is nearly four times in excess of South Africa’s anticipated 2023 GDP of $400 billion.
Davies’ own bias towards these high-carbon emissions could be identified in his career as Minister of Trade and Industry from 2009-19, when he supported construction of a new coal-fired power plant, shale fracking gas development, diesel and petrol cars and trucks (and no electric vehicles) and other high-carbon industries (especially the corrupt Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone), all driven by multinational corporations which externalized profits. Indeed in many cases, the profit repatriation process was facilitated by ‘Illicit Financial Flows,’ to the extent South Africa suffered a ‘grey listing’ by the Financial Action Task Force in February 2023 due to ever-looser Treasury and Reserve Bank controls, about which Davies never publicly complained.
Hence there are sometimes important differences between the material interests of imperial and sub-imperial economies, in terms of internecine competition. Mostly, the concrete material interests broadly coincide, insofar as BRICS ambitions are still to achieve a more substantive role in multilateral corporate rule, not to upend it (as so many committed to hype and hope like to pretend). Given that some insistent and even ‘anti-imperial’ South voices raise international economic injustices as a concern, the logical temptation of observers with progressive leanings is to support their rhetoric – even when unmatched by deeds. But climate sanctions against mega-emitters in the BRICS+ is not one of those times, even if the BRICS’ main climate negotiating bloc, BASIC, joined the battle against CBAM. As South African Environment Minister Barbara Creecy (2023) complained on 20 September 2023 to a BASIC ministerial meeting,
“the window of opportunity is fast closing to pressure the EU and others that are waiting in the wings to impose unilateral taxes in the name of climate action, to either abandon their plans or adjust them to make them legal, fair and about climate change. According to our trade department, Africa stands to lose approximately $26 billion each year in direct taxes to the EU in the initial phase of the CBAM alone. Very soon others, including the USA, UK and Canada will follow the EU’s example and the list of taxed commodities will grow. The net impact will be to more than cancel out any climate finance and other support we have received from the global North and to undermine our sustainable development.”
African elites disappoint their constituents in Nairobi
South African leaders like Creecy are not the only forces on the continent opposed to climate justice, globally and at home. In the immediate wake of the BRICS summit in Nairobi and just before the G20, “The African Leaders’ Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change and Call to Action” bears consideration in part because of relatively limited media coverage of African CJ critics’ central concerns. In the wake of the BRICS’ summit, another important contradiction is that, on the one hand, African elites are aware that strategies (such as carbon markets) exist to address the world’s most extreme market imperfection: GHGs are not internalized within the cost of products. But on the other, their standpoint is to insist that there be no unilateral corrective measures taken, such as a CBAM import penalty which would balance the high-emissions products of especially South Africa, by imposing a tariff. So the AU (2023) declaration demanded, consistent with the BRICS and BASIC statements, that “trade-related environmental tariffs and non-tariff barriers must be subject to multilateral discussions and agreements and not be unilateral, arbitrary or discriminatory measures…”
Aside from backing the continent’s mega-polluters in this particular instance, the Nairobi Declaration generally succumbed to McKinsey-style diplomacy, e.g. “We, the African Heads of State and Government… commend the Arab Republic of Egypt for the successful COP27…” (AU 2023). Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi hosted the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in late 2022, an event seen by objective observers (not fellow heads of state speaking diplomatically) as a major failure in terms of both multilateral climate policy and event management, in no small part because of Egyptian elites’ cooptation by the U.S., other Western powers, the BRICS and Middle Eastern ultra-polluters. Egyptian civil society was, as ever, systematically oppressed, as has already been repeated in Dubai in 2023. To endorse the status quo means of West/BRICS-dominated climate multilateralism, is to automatically start off with a perspective hostile to Africa’s interests.
The Nairobi Declaration called “upon the international community to contribute to the following: Increasing Africa’s renewable generation capacity from 56 GW in 2022 to at least 300 GW by 2030…” (AU 2023). This ambition sounds laudable; however, within the AU’s accounting technique, ‘renewable’ includes mega-hydropower, which due to a variety of factors (including drought that debilitates dam capacity, or floods that threaten many dams’ integrity), is inappropriate. The AU host country, Ethiopia, threatens downstream Nile River communities with its Renaissance Dam, and two major proposed dams – the $100 billion+ proposed Inga Hydropower Project on the Congo River downstream from Kinshasa and Mpanda Nkua on the Zambezi River in Mozambique – would contribute to high methane emissions as riverine vegetation rots. Moreover, meeting a 300 GW target by 2030 would cost (according to an earlier draft) $600 billion, which is inconceivable given the continent’s extreme overindebtedness and the lack of a connection to genuine debt cancellation. Two of Africa’s most important economic ‘success stories’ of the 2010s, Zambia and Ghana, went into default in 2022-23.
The Nairobi Declaration insisted on “…a global transformation to a low-carbon economy is expected to require investment of at least USD 4–6 trillion per year and delivering such funding in turn requires a transformation of the financial system…” (AU 2023). But the only way such ‘transformation’ would allow investment in low-carbon capitalism of that magnitude, is if widescale nationalization of the financial sector was permitted, plus exceptionally large subsidies offered. What the AU does recognize is that currently, power relations do not permit this process. The only factor that Nairobi Declaration authors DO acknowledge is that currently, the interest rate is too high, especially given declining currency values:
“inordinate borrowing costs, typically 5 to 8 times what wealthy countries pay (the ‘great financial divide’), are a root cause of recurring developing country debt crisis and an impediment to investment in development and climate action. We call for adoption of principles of responsible sovereign lending and accountability encompassing credit rating, risk analysis and debt sustainability assessment frameworks and urge the financial markets to commit to reduce this disparity by at least 50 percent i.e from 5%-8 percent to 2.5 – 4.0 percent by 2025… incentivize global investment to locations that offer the most and substantial climate benefits…” (AU 2023).
This framing entails mild-mannered adjustments to international financing arrangements, at the margins. That may help a few borrowers, such as South Africa’s upper-middle class neighborhoods (with their obvious racial bias) or multinational extractive industries escaping the unreliable grid. Indeed, in the latter case, there are many firms now seeking to greenwash their energy inputs so as to avoid a CBAM penalty on exports, with early indications that they may end up ‘cherry picking’ the ‘low-hanging fruit’ associated with renewable energy opportunities, such as well-placed pumped energy storage. Already, their ‘wheeling’ of electricity from high-intensity solar sites – such as the Northern Cape deserts – have overwhelmed transmissions capacity there, given Eskom’s lack of investment in grid expansion in recent years. And in Africa’s most expansive financial economy, South Africa, high interest rates are required to attract capital, so even prime borrowers pay a 12 percent annual rate at best. And for equity (ownership) investors such as South Africa’s Independent Power Producers, such high returns on investment are typical (30 percent annually for venture capital), that the best solar and wind sites have already mainly been plucked (e.g. 4 GigaWatts of South Africa’s residential and small business markets’ solar panel needs during the first half of 2023 alone). There is no hope of generating the desired 300 GWs without extremely generous interest-rate write-downs or outright grants.
The African leaders’ specific appeal for lower rates (a 4 percent differential from what Western borrowers pay) will do very little to change this basic calculus given the continent’s affordability constraints and existing over-indebtedness: “a global carbon taxation regime including a carbon tax on fossil fuel trade, maritime transport and aviation, that may also be augmented by a global financial transaction tax” (AU 2023). This is certainly a laudable demand, but two problems arise. First, such carbon taxes tend to be ‘regressive’ in adversely affecting low-income rural people the most (especially with higher petrol prices), so it is vital to specify that distributive justice accompany any such fundraising.
Second, at the same time, the African leaders propose to augment state taxation with market-speculative mechanisms by, in effect, ‘privatizing the air’ through emissions trading and offsets: “Taking the lead in the development of global standards, metrics, and market mechanisms to accurately value and compensate for the protection of nature, biodiversity, socio-economic co-benefits, and the provision of climate services… Implementing a mix of measures that elevate Africa’s share of carbon markets” (AU 2023). To signal the seriousness of this gesture, the UAE announced it would buy $450 million worth of African carbon credits by 2030 (albeit in the form of a “nonbinding letter of intent”). European and U.S. representatives pledged unspecified support. (The embarrassment of Zuma’s carbon-market intervention in Zimbabwe went unmentioned.)
Ruto’s expressed desire was for African states to continue promoting high-carbon extractivism – deep mining, smelting, processing and fabrication – dominated by multinational corporations from the West and the BRICS. That will entail a commitment to protect these firms when they export minerals, metals and some finished goods to Western markets which have higher environmental standards. The Nairobi Declaration’s answer to this concern, however, would be that over time it will be renewable not fossil-fuel energy that will power extractivism: “Advancing green industrialization across the Continent by prioritizing energy-intense industries to trigger a virtuous cycle of renewable energy deployment and economic activity, with a special emphasis on adding value to Africa’s natural endowments” (AU 2023).
Yet that position runs the very real risk that as solar, wind and energy storage are rolled out across Africa, the ‘prioritization’ of extractive industries will allow the renewable sector’s low-hanging fruit to be plucked by corporations, with none left over for ordinary people. Concern is thus being raised by public-interest advocates over multinational energy corporations’ next generation of ‘green hydrogen’ exports from Africa to Europe (either in the form of battery cells or ammonia), instead of being available to local consumers (e.g. in the short term, bus and truck engines, but also potentially for widescale electricity generation). Meanwhile, the raw mineral base of a green economy, especially the hard lithium deposits in the single largest such mine – Bikita, Zimbabwe – are still being exported (by truck through Beira) without any beneficiation in spite of 2022 national legislation prohibiting such depletion. (In mid-2023, high-visibility opposition to this by the Harare-based Centre for Natural Resource Governance at least led to a brief closure of the mine.)
While the Nairobi Declaration recognizes the disproportionate impact of climate change on Africa, this was not a gathering to find solutions to the humanitarian crises that extreme weather events have already unleashed across the continent. Justice – supposedly the most crucial component of the energy transition – is not mentioned in the declaration, and it did not feature on the agenda. Perhaps unsurprisingly at a McKinsey-organized event, the focus was on monetizing the climate crisis to drive growth and development. “Has the summit merely set the stage for a new era of extractivism in the name of Western ‘green’ development?,” asked South African corporate-watchdog NGO Just Share’s Tracey Davies (2023), and answered affirmatively:
“Carbon markets featured prominently, with their potential to allow big polluters to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to offset them against the carbon sequestration effects of Africa’s forests and mangroves. But hundreds of activists who had gathered in Nairobi from across the continent asserted that carbon markets are really a mechanism for shifting the burden of emission reductions to the global south, while giving the rest of the world a license to continue polluting. There was also a huge focus on ‘clean cooking’, with speakers from the political and business elite expressing newfound concern for the hundreds of millions of Africans who cook with wood, charcoal and kerosene. This is a crucial problem to solve. But events at the summit, such as the launch of a joint report by the International Energy Agency and the African Development Bank, indicate that the admirable objectives of those working to address it are at serious risk of being hijacked by the global gas industry. It is obvious that some bright spark (at McKinsey?) has realized that the ‘clean cooking’ campaign is a beautiful vehicle for legitimizing plans for huge fossil gas expansion across the continent.”
G20 adds AU and subtracts climate ambition in Delhi, while the UN treads water in New York
The third major summit of mid-2023 that confirmed how difficult it will be to change dynamics in the United Nations process, was the G20 in Delhi on September 8-9. Hopes for the G20 had first been sparked in October 2008, when the initial meeting in Washington DC occurred in the midst of a major financial meltdown that required international economic support and legitimacy. Without any further accomplishments over the subsequent 15 years, the accomplishment most participants and commentators described as historic was adding the African Union (AU) as a formal member of the grouping. Additionally, University of Toronto researchers who study G20 promises and accomplishments argued that the 2022 Indonesia summit set goals that were largely achieved in the subsequent year when it came to climate (consistency with the Paris Climate Agreement at 85 percent success) and sustainable development (90 percent).
Some went so far as to claim that the G20’s skillful diplomatic hosting by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meant the network had finally become the vehicle to drive U.S. hegemony towards multipolarity, especially since the three subsequent G20 hosting functions will be in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. For economist Jeffrey Sachs (2023), at the Delhi summit,
“We saw the voice of the emerging economies say we want to have a change of the international economic order. And everybody went along with that and nobody broke the proceedings… the addition of Africa to the G20 – something I’ve been advocating for a number of years – it’s actually a pretty big deal for all the reasons that you and we have been discussing in recent weeks with the BRICS and the shifting power in the world… The discussions now move on to Brazil and Lula and he’s going to carry all of this forward in the double capacity as president of the G20 and as the key member of the BRICS. So next year we’ll have back-to-back the BRICS Summit in Kazan, Russia and we’ll have the G20 in Brazil, and I think things are actually going to change.”
Most notably, while not mentioning climate (aside from Lula also hosting the COP30 in 2025), Sachs hopes that as multipolarity emerges, the kinds of conditions that underdevelop Africa could also fall away:
“If [African countries] unite they will absolutely succeed and what we’ll see is Africa achieving seven to ten percent cumulative growth year by year in the next 40 years, like China did from 1980 to 2020, like India is doing from 2000 to 2040. Africa will be on the same path with the 20-year delay, I would say 20-year starting point. But what we’re going to see is a huge transformation if the Africans do what they really look like they’re doing right now, and that is uniting because as one continental economy that defends its interests and pursues its interests together in global venues and global leadership. It’s going to be a very different and very positive world.”
The structural features of climate crisis, over-indebtedness, primary-product export dependency, and vassal status to multinational corporations and Western donors – which West African military regimes may briefly interrupt but only at the level of who in the state manages the process – remain intact, if the BRICS multipolarity agenda continues to amplify the existing power structure. After all, remarked Adriano Nuvunga, chair of Mozambique’s Center for Democracy and Development, “The AU is an organization that primarily represents the interests of the powerful. It is toothless and ineffective, and it repeatedly proves itself incapable of ensuring prosperity, security, and peace for all Africans” (Cascais 2023).
The Nairobi summit had confirmed that in terms of climate policy, the powerful – in Africa and the G20 alike – are committed to privatizing the air and selling the right to pollute in carbon markets, so it was no surprise that so little emerged from Delhi to encourage environmentalists. There was a vague commitment to tripling renewable energy capacity (with no specific new subsidization mechanisms provided), which International Energy Agency Director Fatih Birol (2023) termed “far from being enough to be in line with the 1.5C target,” or to address widespread fossil addictions. Revealingly, just as at the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow, when the imperial/sub-imperial U.S., China and India alliance united to adopt “phase down” language in relation to coal, the G20 again avoided the term “phase out” or indeed mention of other fossil fuels other than coal. The prior year’s G20 host, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Cabinet Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia 2023), criticized the lack of generous climate financing, terming the Delhi commitments mere ‘rhetoric.’
For Modi, the main symbolic disappointments were the no-shows of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Modi won establishment praise for his global biofuel alliance, along with the US and Brazil, to “help accelerate global efforts to meet net-zero emissions targets by facilitating trade in biofuels derived from sources including plant and animal waste,” although biofuels are also a threat to global food production due to competition for cropland. As Indian agricultural expert Devinder Sharma put it, this was “nothing short of historic blunder”, because the G20 should “think of feeding humans first, automobiles can wait. Food should never be diverted for activities that have nothing to do with domestic food security” (Mukherji 2023).
According to economist Jayati Ghosh (2023), the G20 also failed repeatedly at the level of geopolitics, where so much pressure on world grain prices emanated in 2022 in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On this point, she argued, the G20 under Modi was “backtracking from the statement in Bali, the Indonesian presidency, in which the invasion by Russia of Ukraine was condemned and in which there was a request for the withdrawal immediately.” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was pleased by the declaration because, as Ghosh (2023) pointed out, the G7 sees “the current leadership in India as more important to court than standing up for… Ukraine or even for human rights in India and other countries.” Ghosh (2023) continued,
“What is most appalling is that this G20 has done nothing for the major problems of our time… [in spite of] the major disasters that are occurring across the world… So, there was nothing, really, on any meaningful movement on climate change. There was nothing on resolving the major debt crisis, which in about 80 countries today is worsening the possibilities of dealing with climate change, as well. And yet this was an issue that India had made one of the major concerns of its presidency. Modi had actually said, ‘We are going to work towards a resolution of the debt crisis.’ Nothing on that. A terrible silence on the lack of taxation strategies, for example, wealth taxes on the very rich and sharing of information that would enable that, or even a better deal for corporate taxation than the one that is currently on the table. Nothing in terms of finding the resources that would enable countries to deal with not just the mitigation, but right now just the dealing with the impacts of climate change that so many are facing.”
Two weeks later, the United Nations leaders’ summit in New York confirmed Ghosh’s critique of elite paralysis. Secretary-General António Guterres (2023) summed up:
“Horrendous heat is having horrendous effects. Distraught farmers watching crops carried away by floods, sweltering temperatures spawning disease and thousands fleeing in fear as historic fires rage. Climate action is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge… Humanity has opened the gates of hell.”
A revival of New York climate protests – albeit far smaller than the 2014 and 2019 efforts – attempted to reflect the crisis and dissent, for as Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan (2023) remarked, “75,000 people marched through Manhattan, rallying near the United Nations headquarters. Though it was a message to world leaders, the banner on the rally stage read, ‘Biden: End Fossil Fuels’… with 149 protesters arrested outside of New York’s Federal Reserve Bank, as part of a growing movement challenging the financial backers of the fossil fuel industry.” Targets included “the Museum of Modern Art, for its close connection to its billionaire patron, Henry Kravis, cofounder of Wall Street investment firm KKR. Among the chants at the many protests was, ‘We need clean air, not another billionaire!’”
Conclusion: Africa’s hope may (?) rise from sub-imperialist South Africa’s dissidents
Dissenters against global climate elites have evolved since the early 2000s, when aspects of African climate justice were championed by high-profile world-class leaders, whose organizing is worthy of study. But first, what were their narratives, both in Africa and internationally? The CJ agenda built up in both global protest sites – especially the COPs – as well as from grassroots-based climate-conscious settings. Some included sites of climate catastrophes, especially in Southern Africa. But in making these geographical and scalar jumps, differences in demands between CJ and ordinary ‘climate action’ have become more obvious. Consider some examples of narratives related to CJ demands:
+ African activists, unlike their leaders, regularly use terms like reparations and ‘climate debt.’
+ When it comes to the often-tokenistic climate finance offered by the West, CJ activists insist on grants, not further piling up of foreign-currency-denominated debt.
+ CJ strategists have long suggested ways – such as ‘Million Climate Jobs’ in South Africa – that financing should contribute to bottom-up Just Transitions, not the Washington-London-Frankfurt-Paris-Brussels JETP variety suffered in South Africa.
+ When it comes to technology, CJ activists oppose Intellectual Property restraints on public-good technology (solar, wind and energy storage).
+ CJ activists despair at the privatized version of renewable energy on offer in most sites, with minimal options for collective ownership and management of local electricity grids.
+ Their energy-justice demands include Free Basic Electricity and other feminist-oriented decommodification strategies.
+ CJ activists put great efforts into participation, consultation and diversity, especially given how much climate crisis affects women, indigenous people, race and ethnicity, class and other identity components, in part because the present unjust burdens of loss, damage, adaptation and mitigation costs affect these groups the most.
+ CJ activists also insist on leaving Africa’s fossil fuels underground, and they valiantly fight both onshore and offshore exploration.
+ Some CJ activists argue that a downpayment on high-emitters’ climate debt is one way to compensate for resulting lost revenue, provided the funding gets straight to the people (e.g. according to a Basic Income Grant model used in Otjivero, Nambia in the early 2010s).
+ And many CJ activists advocate versions of ‘climate sanctions’ – e.g., divestment of $50 trillion in institutional investor assets out of fossil fuels, driven by international NGOs; or Xi’s September 2021 curtailment of coal-fired power plants along the Belt&Road; or even a (redesigned) climate sanctions promoted through European border tariffs – if it helps in their battles against high-carbon and high-methane-powered smelters, deep mining and other inappropriate energy guzzlers, and if revenues from such tariffs are circulated back to repay Europe’s climate debt.
These are some of the areas where the CJ tradition departs from mainstream climate policy. But the true test of the power struggle in this life-and-death situation continues to be the way such narratives are translated into climate protest and other pressure points aimed at shifting the views of the powerful, or weakening them. These include whether or not to legitimize elites, and how; where formal processes turn narratives into valuable – or on the other hand, coopted – engagements with otherwise-debilitating elite power structures; and lessons from the prior Africa-wide campaign that two decades ago resolved a major crisis: anti-retroviral medicine-access via a powerful multilateral system that made a substantial concession, thus raising life expectancy across the continent dramatically.
In that latter case, victory in the World Trade Organization in 2001 came from the combination of local dissent – led in South Africa by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) not only against their AIDS-denialist president (Thabo Mbeki) but against Big Pharma’s branch plants and Western government embassies – and global advocacy with international health NGOs (especially Medicins sans Frontieres) and social movements based in imperialist countries (especially ACTUP! in many United States cities). When in 1999 TAC began its international advocacy, it was inconceivable that the demand for free, generic, locally-produced AIDS-drug cocktails (then costing $10,000 annually) would be made available through African countries’ decimated public health systems (Bond 1999). But a United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria did provide funding (as did the U.S. government’s PEPFAR), thus – along with the Montreal Protocol which halted CFC emissions (thus reversing ozone hold damage) – serving as two global-scale precedents for what could be done if the balance of forces is finally shifted toward climate justice.
There is certainly potential for an African grassroots groundswell to rise up in the way so many African AIDS activists showed possible two decades ago, putting pressure on both their leaders and world elites (Heywood 2021). There is also the likelihood that the likes of Ramaphosa and Ruto continue to fail their constituencies. In that case, leadership from high profile activists will continue to condemn the elites, as has long been practiced by the likes of the late Wangari Maatthei, a Kenyan forest protector who became a Nobel Prize laureate and deputy minister; Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian architect and poet whose Niger Delta organising was recognised through the Right Livelihood Award; Ambassador Di-Aping, who after the Copenhagen COP15 was essentially banned from advocacy there but stayed active in other settings such “Rights of Future Generations” advocacy; scholar-activist Boaventura Monjane from the Mozambican peasant movement and University of the Western Cape Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies; Kenyan NGO organizers Mithika Mwenda and Augustine Njamnshi, who founded a network – PACJA – with more than 1000 member groups; Mozambican Friends of the Earth chapter leader Anabela Lemos; Zimbabwean Centre for Natural Resource Governance founder Farai Maguwu; and most importantly, as the continent’s leading youth voice, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate. Some are also leaders of the 27-member Africa Climate Justice Collective which staged a Counter COP in late September 2023, and whose perspective is based on delegitimization and boycotting of the UN process, which contrasts with the combined insider-lobbying and protest that PACJA has carried out since 2009. Behind the local, continental and global leadership and movement-building, are grassroots activists who from the early 2000s have been articulating CJ approaches (Mwenda and Bond 2020).
That process began in Africa in 2004, when the Durban Group for Climate Justice formed from an international conference in order to critique the emerging system of carbon markets and offsets that had been mandated by global elites at the Kyoto COP in 1997. Others from South Africa straddled local, continental and global struggle scales in advocating climate justice: Kumi Naidoo, a Durban anti-apartheid activist who became head of Greenpeace International from 2009-15; Indian Ocean ‘Wild Coast’ activists Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukula who successfully opposed offshore gas and sand mining; EarthLife Africa’s leader Makoma Lekalakala; Rural Women’s Assembly co-founder Mercia Andrews; Samantha Hargreaves and Trusha Reddy of the Women in Mining anti-extractivism network; Sunny Morgan of Debt4Climate; Vishwas Satgar, Charles Simane, Ferrial Adam, Awande Buthelezi, Janet Cherry and others in the Climate Justice Charter Movement which reaches furthest into eco-socialist networks; award-winning filmmaker Rehad Desai; groundWork NGO founder Bobby Peek; Green Connection’s Liziwe McDaid who helped catalyze widespread anti-gas coastal protests; Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance; environmental sociologist Jacklyn Cock; Malik Dasoo and Anita Khanna from Extinction Rebellion; Ferron Pedro of 350.org and Alex Lenferna of the Climate Justice Alliance which seek stronger ties to labour; and exceptionally tough lawyers at the Centre for Environmental Rights, Legal Resources Centre and Cullinan and Associates who support them.
In spite of fractured political traditions which mean there are sometimes several different and competing ideological currents and strategic orientations within the climate activist scene, their spurts of intense activism have sometimes paid off against Ramaphosa, Mantashe, Creecy and the local and multinational fossil corporations which, like Shell and Copelyn, feed South Africa’s politicians generous campaign contributions. Activist sites include beaches and petrol stations (of Shell and Total) where hundreds of protests have occurred against gas exploration since late 2021, Johnny Copelyn’s hotels, the headquarters of Eskom and the energy and environment ministries, Standard Bank (Africa’s largest, a prolific fossil-fuel financier), oil companies’ headquarters (especially Sasol and Total), a military supply firm associated with both Israel and offshore gas extraction (Paramount Group), and the World Bank’s Johannesburg and Pretoria offices. The latter institution was also on the African activist radar, attracting more than a thousand protesters in Morocco where the Bank’s Annual Meeting was held in mid-October.
Because African grassroots opponents of big polluters, their financiers and states which support them will intensify, the nuances of climate politics at global scale are often lost. But when a Nairobi Real Africa Climate Summit full of activists pinpoints obscure targets such as technological-fix false solutions and carbon markets, and when in many concrete settings the detailed critiques of polluting projects are subject to citizen scrutiny, there are often encouraging advances. The ideology of climate justice may, at some stage, intensify to full-fledged eco-socialism, instead of being dragged backwards to versions of climate action and ecological-modernization market and tech-fix strategies, as the elites seek. But the need to maintain profound skepticism about power relations within COPs and the narratives that flow from global climate politics, never fades – especially in Dubai in 2023 and what is likely to be a fossil-addicted Eastern European host in 2024, before moving to the Amazon where perhaps the balance of forces will be improved in 2025.
(A version of this article will appear in the Journal of Peasant Studies.)
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