Climate Change in Africa: Invoking the Spirit of ‘Ubuntu’

Our humanity is hinged on collective responsibility. We are all responsible for each and we are each responsible for all. This is the rationale behind the African word, Ubuntu, rooted in the African humanist philosophy meaning ‘I am because we are’. Derived from the Zulu phrase “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” whose literal meaning is that a person is a person through other people; Ubuntu is a concept of shared humanity and oneness. Before delving into an analysis of how this African word relates to the issue of the global climate emergency, it is imperative to understand the impact of climate change on the African continent.


“Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources. In recent months we have seen devastating floods, an invasion of desert locusts and now face the looming spectre of drought because of a La Niña event. The human and economic toll has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic,”

Petteri Taalas, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Secretary-General.

Africa is a continent that takes great pride in its natural treasures. From its wide-ranging wildlife, being home to a variety of biospheres, from vast deserts to tropical rainforests and fertile grasslands makes it a key player for nature based-tourism. However, like other continents, this nature endowed region has experienced worrisome changes due to climate change. The 2019 report on the climate in Africa, coordinated by the WMO, shows how much of a threat climate change poses to human health, socio-economic development and food security in Africa. According to the report, Africa has experienced a constant rise in temperature in recent years and the latest decadal predictions covering 2020-2024, shows continued warming and decrease in rainfall especially in North and Southern Africa. Whereas the Sahel, an area which experienced the most floods and landslides due to heavy rainfall in 2019, is projected to experience further increases in rainfall. These extreme climate conditions will have devastating effects on the delicate African Agricultural sector, which accounts for the majority of livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people across the continent. From unprecedented cyclones in Mozambique and Zimbabwe which have displaced thousands of people, to the drying up of Lake Chad as a result of climate change and overuse, these recent events are first hand testimonies of the dangers of climate change. This is particularly upsetting because although Africa contributes the least to global warming, accounting for a meagre 3.8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions as opposed to countries like China and USA, who account for 23% and 19% respectively, it is projected to bear the brunt of global warming by being one of the most vulnerable regions to the effects of climate change due to its heavy dependence on the Agricultural sector.

Climate change has and will significantly affect population health across Africa. Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall in some areas create better habitat conditions for biting insects, which will result in the increased transmission of vector borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. According to the WMO report, in 2017, about 93% of global malaria deaths occurred in Africa. More so, the African Climate Policy Centre projects that the Gross Domestic Product in the five African subregions would suffer a significant decrease as a result of a global temperature increase.

In response to this threat, Africa’s Agenda 2063, concluded in 2013 by the African Union, recognised climate change as a major challenge.  To drive the global climate change agenda, over 90% of African countries have ratified the Paris Agreement. Policy responses to climate change in Africa have been guided by the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement. The NDCs embody efforts by various countries to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. African governments are making progress in putting policies aimed at the mitigation of climate change effects. For instance, the Southern African Development Community (SADC)’s Policy Paper on Climate change and the adaptation strategy for the water sector and Southern Africa’s Programme on Climate Change Adaptation, Mitigation in Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA-EAC-SADC) are remarkable strides. Also,  South Africa’s Carbon Tax Act, which places specific levies on greenhouse gases from fuel combustion and industrial processes and emissions, came into effect in June 2019. By 2035, the carbon tax could reduce the country’s emissions by 33 percent relative to the baseline. However, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme, despite a 38-fold increase in environmental laws put in place since 1972 globally, most regions, including Africa, have failed to properly implement these laws and policies. Government responses to climate change are characterised by environmental policies which take forever to come into effect. For example, in Nigeria, the government often makes bold declarations on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. However, these statements are usually followed by gross inaction and the Nigerian government has made no commitment to any climate change goals past year 2030.


As explained earlier, the concept of Ubuntu has its foundation in our shared humanity and advocates unity and togetherness. This principle is particularly important in light of the fact that climate change is a source of concern to all of humanity. Collective action; communally, regionally, and globally, is therefore vital in tackling this problem. Especially because governmental responses in most parts of Africa are largely bureaucratic as a result of corruption, it is essential that Africans do not leave climate change action solely to the government. Taking the example of Nigeria, where the government, blinded by the fantasy of economic growth, has failed to hold oil companies accountable for environmental pollution in the oil rich community of Niger-Delta, led to communal actions by the members of the community, including the initiation of legal action against oil giants like Shell BP. As a result, Shell was forced to take positive actions to prevent further oil spillage within the community. This serves as proof of the effectiveness of collective efforts and Ubuntu. Recognizing that true power lies in the hands of the people, the electorates, Africans in this case, can wield political power by holding their political representatives accountable to take action towards mitigating the effects of climate change in their continent. Rather than apathy towards political affairs or voting based on tribal and ethnical sentiments, voters can ensure that those voted into power are capable of creating the much needed change.

The effectiveness of the efforts of small groups and individuals in tackling climate change has been highly controversial. Of what importance is the action of one individual or a small group of individuals to a continent consisting of over 1.2 billion people?  Furthermore, fossil fuel companies are responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions in Africa, not individuals and these companies are inadequately regulated by governments. But, individual and communal actions are however not futile. The growing trend of ethical consumerism in the West for example demonstrates that consumers can use their spending power to make a difference. Energy production is driven by consumer demand, therefore, we bear some form of responsibility for emissions resulting from energy production. Though there are no practical alternatives to completely alleviate the need for fossil fuels, our lifestyle choices collectively can help reduce carbon emissions.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It is also important to note that everything we do sends ripple effects to the world around us. This is embedded in the principle which states that the micro dictates the macro. This means that we are all a part of how our global society functions. Though individual actions do little in alleviating the problem of climate change, through our efforts, we can encourage others to make changes too.  In the words of famous American Anthropologist, Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” From Kenya’s Wanjiri Wathuti, founder of the Green Generation Initiative, which has planted over 30,000 trees to Uganda’s Leah Namugerwa who marked her 15th birthday by planting 200 trees. Further,  let’s not forget South Africa’s Yola Ngogwana whose anti-plastic crusade has educated many on the need to protect and preserve our environment. These individuals are casting stones across waters to create ripples. In Uganda, the students of St. Kizito High School in Namugongo are transforming bio waste into fertilizers and recycling plastics for arts and crafts. Such actions not only educate but also encourage others to take active steps towards preserving their environment. It brings about a realisation that our actions, though little, have the capacity to influence others to take positive actions because we are all responsible for one another.

Invoking the Spirit of Ubuntu involves collective, global and regional inter-governmental action, as well as communal and individual efforts. It reinforces the traditional notion of brotherhood among African countries in ensuring that no country is left behind and no stone is left unturned in promoting effective climate change action within the region. Therefore, Africans must rise up to the challenge by holding the government accountable to take action as well as educating and encouraging others to take positive steps towards the preservation of the African landscape and the prevention of the extinction of African wild life not just for the present but for generations to come.

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