Reading Response, Class 25: The Environment

The environment—weather, geography, shifts in patters of nature, etc.—may seem like one of the few uncontrollable and objective variables to interact with the political sphere, but the largest takeaway from this week’s reading is the politicization of the environment in modern African foreign and domestic relations. From how climate change might affect levels of conflict to external actors funding environmentally hazardous infrastructural projects, the earth itself has become a tool of politics. Across the African continent, the environment—as both talking point and tangible entity—is used by both regional and external powers to actualize both the soft and hard power increases that they seek. This trend is visible both within and across national borders.

In their journal article “Climate Change, Rainfall, and Social Conflict”, Hendrix and Salehyan explore if and how climate change impacts conflict in Africa, and though they conclude that changes in rainfall are not in and of themselves an issue of politics, “conflicts [do] arise over the distribution of resources rather than their absolute level.”[1] Because climate change is a major facet of the monolithic “environmental factor” and impacts availability of resources, succesful resource distribution should be understood to include alleviation of practices that exacerbate the dangerous changes catalyzed by greenhouse gas emissions. Hendrix and Salehyan’s findings thus provide a theoretical framework for how climate change, political decision-making, and civil/social/violent unrest function in tandem. Because the distribution this research refers to is controlled by (depending on the case), local, national, or multi-national bodies, willingness to distribute in a way that minimizes environmental changes even at the expense of profit illustrates these actors’ commitments (or lack thereof) to the safety and stability of their citizenry. Professor Nelson’s research outlined in “Africa’s Regional Powers and Climate Change Negotiations” and Hensengerth’s “Chinese Hydropower Companies and Environmental Norms in Countries of the Global South” each help expand on this relationship between the environment and political motivations, nationally and internationally respectively.

The narrative of “Africa’s Regional Powers and Climate Change Negotiations” shows this phenomenon in the actions of national governments. Nations like Ethiopia, which stands to be majorly impacted by changing weather patterns, are willing to forgo expensive and time-consuming action to stall global warming in an effort to avoid pursuing an unpopular policy. Conversely, regional powers that stand to gain soft power by joining international efforts like the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, as South Africa did.[2] And yet, South Africa continues to be one of the biggest users of coal energy, a huge source of fossil fuel emissions. None of these federal governments, even when feigning partnership against global warming, show a commitment to tangible actions that will reduce weather changes.

On an international level, China’s participation in building infrastructure in Ghana is a case study that illustrates the continued importance of international players exercising power in (what they perceive to be) weaker states. Political scientists, Hensengerth included, attempt to inflate the validity of the pursuit of influence and resources in such relationships, particularly in South-South cases. This line of argument often verges on neo-colonial apology, particularly when the building of a (lucrative) dam like the Bui dam no longer occurs in Western and more developed countries, where it has been deemed to likely to cause disaster.[3]

All of this evidence becomes even more troubling when acknowledging the widely accepted theory of political science wherein social unrest allows those in power to maintain their power. An unwillingness to address climate change—and even a willingness to exacerbate it for the sake of profit—by national and international bodies shows a global trend of leadership failing to have their citizenry as first priority. It seems that power accumulation and maintenance have surpassed avoiding social and civil unrest, a conclusion made clear by the synthesis of these readings on climate change.

[1] Hendrix and Salehyan, “Climate Change, Rainfall, and Social Conflict in Africa”, Journal of Peace Research, 37.

[2]Nelson, Michael, “Africa’s Regional Powers and Climate Change Negotiations”, MIT Press Journal, 124.

[3] Hensengerth, Oliver, “Chinese Hydropower Companies and Environmental Norms in Countries of the Global South”, Environment, Development, and Sustainability, 289.

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