Interview

Africa Will Be a Little Too Lit If We Don’t Do Something—a Conversation on Climate Change

We speak with Lerato Letebele, of the climate change organization 350, about how climate change is impacting the continent, and what we can do to help fight it.

Climate Change is here and it doesn't give a fuck about you or me. Climate change is a violent process. Not only does it wreck the planet, it has and will create conditions for social turmoil. Mass migrations out of severely impacted areas, wars over dwindling natural resources. Meanwhile, fossil fuel corporations, the ones who are reaping massively obscene profits from our planet’s demise, are disseminating misleading information to the public, arguing that climate change is not real.


Since it’s #Goals month at OkayAfrica, we’re thinking about what we can achieve. How do we make sure our earth does not turn into the setting ripped from the pages of an Octavia Butler novel?

I spoke with Lerato Letebele, the Regional Communications Coordinator for Africa and the Middle East with the climate change organization 350.org. Letebele tells me that 350.org is an organization that “contributes to building the global grassroots climate movement that holds our leaders accountable to science and climate justice.” They “utilise online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects.”

350.org also aims to “oppose new coal, oil and gas projects” while attempting “to build 100 percent clean energy solutions that work for all.” It’s an organization that has a network that extends to 188 countries. Their work in Africa, which began in 2007, is mainly conducted in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Abel for OkayAfrica: So, we hear about climate change and global warming a lot, but i’m not sure how many folks have a grip of what those terms exactly mean. Can you offer a short summary?

Lerato Letebele: Climate change is any long-term significant change in expected patterns of average weather of a specific region over an appropriately significant period of time. Climate has always changed in the earth’s existence. However, when we use the term “climate change” now, it is to describe shifts in weather conditions in approximately the last 100 years and the next 100 years or so.

Global warming refers to the increase of the Earth’s average surface temperature due to a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that normally surrounds the earth and keeps the surface of the earth warm and able to sustain life.

When we burn fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) we contribute to global warming. This is currently happening to such an extent that the climate is changing. This is why we speak about “human-induced climate change.” We now know for certain that there is no room for fossil fuels if we are serious about addressing the climate crisis.

So I know that the “West” and wealthier countries and people disproportionately contribute to climate change yet the “Global South” and poorer people of color seem to be facing and will continue to face the brunt of its effects. Can you elaborate on that?

This is a climate injustice issue which has been denounced for years and is even recognised by the UNFCCC under the principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.' These are based on historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing States to global environmental issues and in particular climate change. While Western countries industrialized and developed economies based on fossil fuels starting in the 1700s, countries in the Global South now face the impacts of this destructive fossil fuel induced development, while still needing to develop themselves. To date, $36bn is owed to Africa as a result of climate change damage on the continent. Africans experience the greatest impacts of climate change, despite having contributed the least to the global crisis.

In order to stop the unprecedented climate crisis we’re living in, fossil fuels have to remain in the ground, all new coal must be kept in the hole and be replaced by a 100 percent renewable energy economy globally. Worldwide coal consumption is on the decrease. The transition to sustainable renewable is already happening. Climate change is caused by large emissions of industrial countries. Developed countries are obligated to lead this urgent shift. However, we know that some are reluctant and others unwilling to revisit their commitments to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

For countries in the Global South, whether the West acts on climate change or not, the commitments made during COP22 under the Climate Vulnerable Forum where 47 countries, 16 from Africa, committed to meet 100 percent domestic renewable energy production as rapidly as possible. This sends a clear message: Africa can leapfrog straight to renewable energy sources and decentralised off-grid technologies benefiting millions of people. We need to break our dependency on fossil fuels for energy. We have solar in abundance. This is the natural resource that will transform Africa's energy mix.

What are some concrete effects we are currently seeing in regards to climate change in Africa in particular and worldwide in general? Can you name some countries that are currently being impacted and what is happening there?

The first are extreme heat, drought and famine. Warming is increasing the severity of drought and periods of extreme heat. A warmer atmosphere sucks more water from the soil, increasing the likelihood for drought conditions. Through 2015 and 2016, drought and rising temperatures left over 36 million people in Eastern and Southern Africa facing hunger. The drought was the worst in Ethiopia’s recent history. Researchers have found that even with a small increase in temperature, (1.5°C-2°C), drought and desertification will contribute to farmers losing 40-80 percent of cropland conducive to growing maize, millet, and sorghum by the 2030s-2040s.

Then there're water shortages—since the 1990s, South Africa has lost a third of its farms due to water scarcity and a trend toward larger and more intensive farms due to globalisation.

Next is sea level. Nearly 56 million Africans live in coastal zones that face seawater inundation as sea levels rise. Already, low-lying areas in Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana have experienced heightened erosion of the coast, affecting local infrastructure. At this point we cannot stop sea level rise, but if we act now to keep fossil fuels in the ground and limit warming to less than 2°C, it can mean the difference between a sea level increase of 50cm and an increase of 10 metres or more.

With the way things are currently going, and if additional action is not taken, what are some scientific predictions of what will happen to our planet?

2016 was already recorded as the hottest year on record. The urgency could not be more heightened: climate change continues to unjustly impact the most vulnerable people worldwide as climate impacts increase in frequency and intensity at a time of lacking climate leadership.

So some of the scientific projected risks include:

• Surface temperature projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios

• Heat waves will occur more often and last longer

• Extreme precipitation events (rain and storms) will become more intense and frequent in many regions.

• Ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level will rise.

In brief, without urgent action, climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks. Unfortunately, risks are unequally distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.

Can you talk about the Paris Climate accords, what it was, its success and failures?

The signing of the Paris agreement represents important progress that sent a signal that the time has come to keep fossil fuels in the ground. With this agreement, countries agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, and aim for 1.5 degrees. Though the accord gives hope, it still leaves far too many people exposed to the violence of rising seas, stronger storms and deeper drought. It leaves too many loopholes to avoid serious action.

For instance, achieving the 1.5°C goal means an immediate halt to burning fossil fuels pre 2030. This is an ambitious target, sure to be missed in the current scenario where big polluters are backsliding on their commitments and the fossil fuel industry is not only expanding, but also blocking the development of renewables, especially in the Global South.

Also, the Agreement does not bind fossil fuel producers to leaving their reserves in the ground. Yet to avoid runaway climate change, we will need to leave more than 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

Countries did commit to reduce their emissions, and a mechanism was put in place to review the actions taken by each country in 2023. Countries will have to increase their commitments in 2025 and every five years. However, there are no legally binding targets to cut emissions, contrary to the Kyoto Protocol that had set binding targets for rich countries.

In your opinion, what can or should be done to mitigate the effects of climate change? What do governments need to do? Are there examples of countries taking positive preventative action? What countries or cities can we look to as examples?

Climate impacts are taking us into uncharted territory while still impacting the most vulnerable people worldwide as climate action by governments remains insufficient to ensure we avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

All subsidies for fossil fuel companies need to be ended, and the growing renewable energy industry should be supported. Existing fossil fuel infrastructure must be phased out and new plans immediately halted including the building of new power plants and the opening of mines.

The fossil fuel divestment movement continues to be the fastest growing divestment campaign in history. Individuals and institutions worldwide are choosing to take matters in their own hands as governments fail to take bold action to confront the climate crisis and fossil fuel expansion continues at an ever increasing pace. Many cities and regions have already divested. Cape Town has recently announced that they will divest from fossil fuels. Globally USD 5.4 trillion has been divested from fossil fuels.

What campaigns are 350.org currently involved in that you’d like to highlight?

Globally, 350.org uses online campaigns, grassroots organising and mass public actions to oppose fossil fuel industries. Back here at home, in Kenya together with frontline communities we’re campaigning against new coal expansion such as the iconic Save Lamu Campaign. In South Africa we continue to work with the City of Cape Town in the implementation of their divestment commitments as well as aiding university divestment calls. We are instrumental in connecting regional anti coal struggles across the continent.

How can folks get involved in helping to fight climate change?

By getting active in their own communities, fighting for the climate change causes that they are passionate about. This could be air pollutions laws, or getting an institution in their community to divest from fossil fuels. 350.org has a range of tools to help anyone get active, and you can sign up for events and activities on our website and meet others who are active in your community.

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Photo: Julius Kasujia

In Conversation: The Ugandan Supermodel Fighting Climate Catastrophe

We talked to Aamito Lagum about the climate strike and what her activism means to her

You may know Aamito Lagum from the first season of Africa's Next Top Model in 2013, where she blew away the competition in the popular reality television show. After taking the crown, she moved to New York and started walking in many of the world's biggest fashion shows. Dozens of magazine spreads, campaigns and photo shoots later and Lagum is a globally recognized face with a big following. But she's also a person deeply concerned about climate change. In 2018 she spoke at the Global Climate Action Summit bringing her experiences as a Ugandan into the discussion. This month she took part in the Global Climate Strike, meant to push leaders to deal with the crisis. We talked to Lagum about what the climate crisis means to her and how she hopes to empower fellow Ugandans on issues of climate justice.

How did you first get involved with climate change activism?

I grew up in Kampala and used to visit my grandmother in the northern part of Uganda. It was there that I started noticing the climate literally changing. It was beginning to feel hotter and hotter, there were shorter rainy seasons and a much longer dry season. I especially remember that there used to be a river near my grandma's where people would fish and get their drinking water—it was the life of the village. As time went on, the river dried up, and there's been less and less activity there. I was in Uganda this past year and travelled up north. It was so hot, worse than I've ever experienced. Activism is something I'd say I had been curious about for a long time and wanted to know more. Now that the world is talking about climate change, I feel like I can now put into words what I saw when I was growing up in Uganda—and that I see to this day.

Why is environmentalism close to your heart?

For me, it's a very personal issue. In America, there's enough to sustain us throughout the year. During the winter, we don't have to worry about whether we'll have enough food to get us through the dark cold months. But in Uganda, people are eating only one meal a day because there just isn't enough food. This isn't because they're lazy and can't work, it's because the climate is too unreliable. When the rain comes, it's too heavy that it spoils the crops. When the hot season comes it takes the crops a really long time to grow—so the harvest has a small yield and the food isn't enough to sustain them. People starve, to be honest. And when it comes to hunger, I know it's the women and children who suffer the most.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the continent in regards to climate change?

The continent is one of the most susceptible places on earth to climate change, at the same time we are the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that have created this crisis. The biggest effect on Africa right now is the erratic weather patterns. In countries like Ethiopia, there are people who say they used to see drought every five or six years, now they say it's happening every two or three years. In the Somali region, people say the 2017 drought hasn't really ended in some areas and people are unable to recover between dry periods. At the same time, there is too much rain in Mozambique during winter months. Just this year there were violent storms like Cyclone Idai, which was literally one of the worst storms on record in that part of the continent.

Oxfam, for instance, is pushing for governments and large companies doing business in Africa to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But they're also working with farmers in parts of the continent to adjust their crop cycles to the changing weather patterns, even to take out loans or help build up their savings so they have a kind of buffer. I think we also have to be careful to protect some of the continent's greatest natural resources—our rivers, lakes, forests. I realize that work and new economic opportunities are important to fighting the very real and heart-breaking poverty there, but we have to also be sure to protect the nature that millions there rely on for things like fishing and even tourism.

Photo: Becky Davis/Oxfam

Can you talk more about the work you do with Oxfam and how it's improving happenings on the ground?

Oxfam is fantastic. When I went to Uganda with Oxfam, my main focus was on women and the work Oxfam and its partners are doing do to help women. It's the women who have the power to make change on a household level, who focus on the children and what they need to thrive. The men don't make those kinds of decisions. The work Oxfam is doing helps women make the kind of small-scale decisions that lead to big change.

One example of an Oxfam program we saw was at a refugee camp in Uganda, where women were making sanitary pads for girls who couldn't afford or access them. The girls couldn't go to school because of this. Something so basic has the potential to reduce the number of school dropouts and have a much larger impact on these girls' lives.

It's important to realize what power women in Africa have to affect long-term change. For instance, it's the women who do the cooking and decide whether to burn charcoal, firewood or briquettes. If they begin to use briquettes versus firewood, that teaches their children that firewood isn't good for the environment—briquettes are often made of recycled materials, they produce less smoke, and they don't require cutting down trees. These are the kind of simple, but important choices that kids will grow up knowing. Oxfam is empowering women so women can pass on their values and knowledge to their children, so they'll make better decisions growing up.

You work in what some would consider two very different worlds: modeling and activism. How does one inform the other for you?

I actually don't think they're two different worlds. The world is one, and everything is interconnected. Modeling provides an opportunity for activism. As a model you have to ask how do you influence people, what do you say to people to create positive change? If you've been given some sort of platform—even if it's not modeling—it's so important to ask how you can create some kind change. That's the direction we're going in. We now have a lot of access to people with just one click. We can post something and 100,000 people will see it instantaneously. It's fantastic and I feel very blessed that I'm living in this day and age.

I also see the fashion community paying lots and lots of attention to the need for more sustainable products. I know examples of denim companies that are more sustainable—they're into more sustainable fabric and more sustainable ways of running their business. Stella McCartney is always advocating for sustainability, holding people accountable, and researching how products are made. There's also an increasing amount of information on fast fashion companies which aren't sustainable or ethical. Lots of people I know no longer buy from them and are becoming more conscious. The more that people talk about these issues and become aware, is how change happens.

How do we empower people on the continent to take action against climate change in order to protect their livelihoods?

I think many of the things that happen on the continent is because people aren't aware. They don't know that years of what they've been doing will have an impact on generations after them. People coming together, getting information, spreading the word about climate change is one of the ways we can make change.

Africa is so rich in oil, minerals, and other natural resources, that many large foreign companies are looking to do business there. But there isn't lot of information about the kind of damage they can do to the environment and people's health. For instance, major mining companies on the continent create so much coal dust that it causes people to have asthma and pollutes the harvest rain water.

In Uganda, only a percentage of people own phones. So this means not many people have access to information through Facebook, and other social media channels. Most people still listen to the radio and that's not reaching people our age. So how do you get to the woman in the small village who doesn't know about these huge companies? That they are polluting the land, that the animals are dying because they're drinking polluted water from companies that are dumping waste water everywhere? I believe if they knew, they would come together, and they would hold their governments and decision-makers more accountable.

One of the things that's most important for everyone to understand is that nothing will get better unless rich countries most responsible for climate change –including the US, Germany, and the United Kingdom – reduce emissions and take serious climate action. I truly believe information is power.

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(Photo by Axel Rouvin via wikimedia)

Gabon is the First African Nation to Be Rewarded for Conservation Practices

The country will receive $150 Million in support of its exceptional sustainable forestry.

Gabon just made history as the first African country to receive payments for preserving its rainforests. On Sunday, Gabon signed a 10-year deal with Norway that will give the country $150 Million for their efforts at sustainable forest conservation, reduced greenhouse emissions and carbon dioxide consumption. The money will be paid as both a reward for past environmental performance and as an incentive to continue their good work.

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14 Cultural Events You Can't Miss this December in South Africa

OkayAfrica's guide to must-see events during South Africa's festive season.

South Africans will tell you that December is not just a month, it's an entire lifestyle. From beginning to end, it's about being immersed in a ton of activity with friends and family as well as any new folk you meet along the way. Whether you're looking to turn up to some good music or watch some provocative theater, our guide to just 14 cultural events happening in South Africa this December, has something for everyone.

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Photo by Lana Haroun

From #FeesMustFall to #BlueforSudan: OkayAfrica's Guide to a Decade of African Hashtag Activism

The 2010s saw protest movements across the continent embrace social media in their quest to make change.

The Internet and its persistent, attention-seeking child, Social Media has changed the way we live, think and interact on a daily basis. But as this decade comes to a close, we want to highlight the ways in which people have merged digital technology, social media and ingenuity to fight for change using one of the world's newest and most potent devices—the hashtag.

What used to simply be the "pound sign," the beginning of a tic-tac-toe game or what you'd have to enter when interacting with an automated telephone service, the hashtag has become a vital aspect of the digital sphere operating with both form and function. What began in 2007 as a metadata tag used to categorize and group content on social media, the term 'hashtag' has now grown to refer to memes (#GeraraHere), movements (#AmINext), events (#InsertFriendsWeddingHere) and is often used in everyday conversation ("That situation was hashtag awkward").

The power of the hashtag in the mobility of people and ideas truly came to light during the #ArabSpring, which began one year into the new decade. As Tunisia kicked off a revolution against oppressive regimes that spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook played a crucial role in the development and progress of the movements. The hashtag, however, helped for activists, journalists and supporters of causes. It not only helped to source information quickly, but it also acted as a way to create a motto, a war cry, that could spread farther and faster than protestors own voices and faster than a broadcasted news cycle. As The Guardian wrote in 2016, "At times during 2011, the term Arab Spring became interchangeable with 'Twitter uprising' or 'Facebook revolution,' as global media tried to make sense of what was going on."

From there, the hashtag grew to be omnipresent in modern society. It has given us global news, as well as strong comedic relief and continues to play a crucial role in our lives. As the decade comes to a close, here are some of the most impactful hashtags from Africans and for Africans that used the medium well.

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