Adaptation Matters: What the U.S. can Learn from African Climate Activists’ Perspective

In 1821, a hurricane devastated New York. Street flooding was so bad that the Manhattan island was divided into two — all land south of the inundated Canal Street became a new island, hence the origin of the name canal. 

But the United States seems to have forgotten its history; with modern-day technological advances, we tend to disregard Mother Nature’s power. Ashwani Vasishth, professor of sustainability at Ramapo College, tells me that Western environmental movements focus more on cutting down carbon emissions than adapting to ongoing climate-induced disasters. Renowned climate journalist Andrew Revkin provides an explanation in his article for National Geographic—adaptation can often be the “A-word… to many global warming campaigners” as they see “efforts to adapt to climate extremes as capitulation and a distraction from the need to curb emissions.”

While reducing emissions is necessary to cap the global temperature increase, advocates for prioritizing emission reduction ignore the fact that the planet will not experience the fruits of our emergency brakes soon enough. Climate scientists estimate that even if carbon emissions were halted today, the planet will continue to heat for decades because of the damage already done. Furthermore, communities in the margin, even in the developed world, are increasingly facing the threats of climate change. 

Yet, as Harriet Shugarman, Executive Director of ClimateMama tells me, in the US, “no federal administration, this one or past ones, have taken on climate adaptation and resiliency with the urgency required.” This reality makes adaptation to climate change essential for every country in the coming years.

However, for African nations, the necessity is even more pressing. Although the continent only emits about 4 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases (as of 2017), they experience most of the hardships from the climate crisis.  This was unequivocally clear from the African youth leaders at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit this year. They stood out for their shared belief in climate entrepreneurship to empower individuals now, instead of waiting for climate action from governments that may prove itself to be too little too late. 

I met with some of the advocates and asked, “What makes the African experience with the climate crisis different from the mainstream perspective?” 

Ghanian Green Ticket recipient Desmond Alugnoa responded, “It is obvious that Africa occupies a unique position when it comes to climate — the good, the bad and the ugly. Coming from Africa, [the effects of the climate crisis] are things you see on a daily basis. Rains used to come at a certain time, not anymore. Now they come late and leave so early.” South Sudanese Green Ticket recipient Emmanuel Lobijo tells me his home — the youngest country on Earth — faces poverty, war, hunger, lack of education, but these issues are all rooted in the climate crisis and the need for climate adaptation. 

To foster climate adaptation in Africa, most leaders emphasized education as a crucial component. A survey conducted by Afrobarometer (an independent research group) found that while pluralities in 30 out of the 34 countries surveyed believed that climate conditions for agriculture had worsened, only 28 percent of Africans related climate change to human activity.“We need to educate people [that] the culprit is climate change,”  Nigerian Green Ticket recipient Dr. Daniel Chidubem Gbujie said. For nations and communities reliant on robust local farming and rainfed agriculture, knowing about incoming droughts, how to combat them, and fostering a public that sees their connection to the climate crisis is key. 

Gbujie and Lobijo, the green tickets from South Sudan and Nigeria respectively, are collaborating through Team 54 Project, an organization that raises awareness about the latent ways the climate crisis manifests in the lives of everyday people. Team 54 Project also advocates for climate entrepreneurs to tackle these intricacies creatively. One of the many projects they have sponsored is Repclime, a smart phone app that alerts Africans of incoming environmental disasters and reports on environmental issues. 

Through the app, users can report on environmental disasters or climate-related issues in their area, which is broadcast to other users in the vicinity and interested parties. As such, the app can be used by governments to see how the climate crisis is impacting people on a daily basis and ultimately bridges the gap between farmers and the larger agricultural sector. 

These innovators agree that the stigma around Africa being wartorn and unstable must be broken for climate innovation to excel there and protect vulnerable frontline communities. Gbujie explained, “There are new crops of Africa. Africans are rising and you can see the level of things we are doing.” 

The youth leaders feel that there is no time to wait for external solutions for the future of their country and region. Bolstering local youth innovators as well as crowdsourcing community-oriented solutions is the way for them to seize their own future and protect their homes from climate change before it is too late. 

We, in the US, could learn from their forwardness to adapt. As Shugarman said, “the US has regularly been good at playing out the idea of ‘out of sight out of mind.’ While many communities across the US are reeling from the impacts of our climate crisis, we in the US are good at hiding them.” 

Though the true repercussions may be hidden, they still exist and are racing towards us. This reality is most evident with the uptick in wildfires experienced in California. In 2017, only two counties in the state had enlisted for wildfire assistance from the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program. As of 2018, this number jumped to 14 California counties out of 27 total counties that applied for help. Needless to say, the problem is not going anywhere. 

In 2018, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator for Resilience Dr. Daniel Kaniewski said, “We know that every $1 invested in hazard mitigation provides the nation with $6 in disaster cost savings according to the latest report by the National Institute of Building Science.” 

With this in mind, investing more to develop fire resistant homes in vulnerable communities must be pursued to combat the issue, such that the inevitable wildfires that will haunt our future can be defended against. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program’s budget hovers just above $200 million, according to a Washington Post article,  and it must address hurricanes, earthquakes and a host of other natural hazards as well as fires. Moreover, regardless of the adaptation budget, the United States spends more than $2 billion annually to suppress fires and billions more to support neighborhoods’ recovery, according to the same article. 

Day by day, the buffer period for building climate adaptation in the U.S., and the Western world, is shrinking — a paradigm shift in addressing the climate crisis must evolve to incorporate climate adaptation.