Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
  • Sri Lanka children - Jim Stipe
  • Golden calf on Wall Street
  • Seedbag
  • Altar in Palestine - R Rodrick Beiler
  • corn bags

Africa: Climate change and agriculture

Woman using hoe clip art

The following article examines the evidence supporting Pope Francis’ startling warning in Laudato Si’: “the warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.” The following article was published in the May-June 2016 issue of NewsNotes.

Evidence for Pope Francis’ moral assessment of the impact of climate change on Africa can be found in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change entitled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. Two pieces of evidence are of particular importance:  mean average temperature will rise over Africa faster than the global average; and ecosystems have already been affected and are on track to be substantially impacted by climate change. 

The report also notes that climate change will interact with non-climate drivers, such as the increase in pests and plant diseases and ecosystem degradation due to floods and droughts, to exacerbate vulnerability of agricultural systems. This could very likely reduce cereal crop productivity and have a strong effect on food security. Climate change could also increase the burden of existing health vulnerabilities. Coupled with other external changes, climate change may overwhelm the ability of people to cope and adapt especially if the root causes of poverty and vulnerability are not addressed.

Aa Pope Francis noted, there is a disproportionate impact of climate change on those least responsible for causing it. This is especially evident in Africa. While the continent is home to about 14 percent of the world’s population, it produces only about 3 percent of the yearly global fossil fuel carbon emission. 

The reasons for Africa’s vulnerability to climate change are complex and present enormous challenges to its small-holder farmers who represent 65 percent of Africa’s labor force and account for 32 percent of gross domestic product. About 95 percent of African agricultural production is highly climate sensitive because it depends exclusively on rainfall. Add to this the fact that African farmers have a weak capacity to adapt to climate change because they cannot afford measures such as crop insurance and other safety nets and it becomes clear why changes in weather patterns – whether natural, like the El Nino phenomenon, or global warming – are such a threat to food producers in Africa.

Nevertheless, agricultural GDP growth in sub Saharan Africa has accelerated from 2.3 percent per year in the 1980s to 3.8 percent per year from 2000 to 2005. Growth has been mostly based on area expansion, but land is scarce and many countries are facing limits to further expansion. Add the severe and widespread impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity and it becomes clear that African agriculturalists will be challenged to adopt complex adaptation measures in how they produce food. Such “transformational adaptation” could result in a fundamental change in farmers’ way of life, like switching from the growing of crops to raising livestock. To make these kinds of changes, African farmers need significant financial resources, technical support, and investment in institutional capacity. 

How are African nations responding to the challenges of climate change? At the Paris Climate Talks African representatives shared their “Common Africa Position” in which they say “We will reduce deforestation, desertification and pollution, promote reforestation and reduce soil erosion; improve land management; promote renewable energies; promote efficiency of energy production, consumption and recycle; and effectively implement the Kyoto Protocol.”

They also appealed to developed countries “to provide sufficient and predictable financing to developing countries, mainly through effective use of the Green Climate Fund with US$100 billion per year by 2020, as well as the transfer of technologies and capacity building in accordance with the relevant decisions adopted in Cancun.”

On March 8, President Obama sent $500 million to the Green Climate Fund – the first installment of a $3 billion pledge made by the United States. The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns will advocate for more installments in upcoming fiscal years. The Green Climate Fund currently supports eight projects (two in Africa) with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping vulnerable people address the impacts of climate change. 

Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also the greatest challenge to human rights of our time. It is an issue of justice and equality for the millions of people around the world who already are experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. It is an issue for not only current but also future generations who will suffer increasingly severe loss and damage.