The Moment for Climate Justice


A wind farm outside Cape Town, South Africa. A new African energy initiative in the U.S. Congress promotes an “appropriate mix of power solutions” in Africa, but it leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels. (warrenski / Flickr)

This week, the House will vote on the Electrify Africa Act. This bill directs the president to draw up a multi-year strategy to strengthen the ability of countries in sub-Saharan Africa to “develop an appropriate mix of power solutions” to provide electricity, fight poverty, and “drive economic growth.”

Because of strong pressure from climate justice advocates, some positives—such as integrated resource planning and decentralized renewable energy—are named as a part of that mix. But because it still leaves the door wide open to fossil fuels, the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect people or their environment.

And the debate over Electrify Africa continues as the Senate drafts a companion bill.

Powering Fossil Fuels

Behind both pieces of legislation is a White House initiative announced last summer called “Power Africa.” It frames President Barack Obama’s approach to energy investment on the continent, which has been condemned by environmental justice groups. It’s an “all of the above” energy strategy that favors the fossil fuel companies that are destroying the planet and corrupting Washington.

Proponents of Electrify and Power Africa have been most publicly enthusiastic about new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas on the continent, which has many African activists wary of a resource grab. Executives from companies like General Electric—which according to Forbes has recently pivoted its attention to the continent—have appeared on the podium with President Obama to applaud the policy.

At a March Senate hearing on Power Africa, Del Renigar, Senior Counsel for Global Government Affairs and Policy at GE, even noted that one of the company’s “most significant efforts to date has been focused on the privatization of the Nigerian power sector.” He lauded the potential of Power Africa to help “reduce the obstacles” to negotiating deals for power projects. And some backers of dirty energy are attempting to use the initiative to weaken the existing environmental safeguard policies of national development finance institutions such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

The backers of keeping dirty energy in Power Africa like to portray their opponents as privileged elites who want to keep Africans “in the dark” by denying them electricity and industrialization, while keeping their own lights on.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The real concern here is that U.S. taxpayers will wind up supporting African energy development that caters to corporate industrial zones and natural resource exporters, leaving the majority of Africans in rural and neglected urban areas still without access to power and exposed to dangerous pollution.

An OPIC proposal to finance the Azura Edo gas plant in Nigeria is a recent case in point. A review of project documents and site visits by Environmental Rights Action Nigeria found that the plant will not provide any new energy access, even to villages immediately adjacent to the project, nor will families displaced by the project receive adequate resettlement compensation. Project developers did not consider any renewable energy options. Instead, the plant will use open-cycle gas turbines supplied by GE—a technology more polluting and less energy efficient than closed-cycle turbines. Yet this project is considered part of Power Africa.

A Global Climate Justice Movement

In Africa, the United States, and around the world, there is a growing outcry against the ravages of coal and other fossil fuel pollution, which sickens and kills—with the burden falling hardest on the poor, elderly, and children.

A climate justice movement with a clear vision for a clean, equitable energy future is making itself heard. The drivers of this movement are people living on the front line of dirty energy in poorer countries and in low-income neighborhoods in wealthier nations like the United States. They understand firsthand the effects of dirty energy pollution and climate chaos, and are champions of innovative forms of clean rural and urban electrification—not only in the Global South, but just as urgently in the heavily polluting Global North. In fact, an international campaign to demand climate justice, representing over 100 groups in developing and developed countries, has called for efforts to ensure “people’s access to clean, safe, and renewable energy sources.”

In Africa, climate justice activists are speaking eloquently about a new economy for Africans and everyone else that leapfrogs fossil fuels and delivers electricity to hundreds of millions of people through clean energy and energy efficiency.

Augustine Njamnshi, Policy Coordinator of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance in Cameroon, asserts that “the transition must be just as much as it must be swift. There must be clear measures to ensure ‘climate jobs’ are created—jobs and livelihoods that are necessary for the shift to low carbon, climate resilient, and equitable development pathways.” Innovation abounds in these areas, but policy incentives still tend to favor fossil fuels over clean energy.

Another dynamic group, Earthlife Africa, is opposing coal-fired plants in South Africa, which they argue will create far more environmental problems than energy benefits. Like most environmental justice groups, Earthlife couples that opposition with bold proposals for an alternative energy future. They are promoting studies about the job benefits of a renewable energy strategy. And they argue that, with the right policies, 50 percent of all South African electricity could come from renewable sources by 2050.

African climate justice groups have documented how large-scale energy projects tend to serve big corporations and the wealthy. According to the South Africa-based NGO Groundwork, residents pay up to seven times more for their electricity in that country than major corporations do. Meanwhile, pollution from the country’s dirty energy system results in massive health costs to the state.

The climate justice movement also points out that those most responsible for the problem should be the ones to help pay for real solutions. And that means divesting from dirty-energy corporations and investing in renewable energy systems that put people first. Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop, recently wrote that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

The U.S. Congress and the White House would both do well to heed his call and allocate resources to contribute to the energy revolution that Africa and the United States so desperately need. It’s not a fossil fuel revolution, but instead one rooted in clean alternatives that come from the remarkable innovations of people working together.

Janet Redman is the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, Emira Woods is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus, and John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies.
  • Kwei Quartey

    It’s extremely rare–and some would argue that it never happens–that a multinational company goes into Africa with Africans’ wellbeing in mind. For instance, ever since the Portuguese rolled up at the shores of the Gold Coast, it’s been a steady exploitation of Ghana’s natural wealth by myriad western companies all the way to the present, facilitated by the dependency relationship with the West that Africa seems to have difficulty breaking.

  • serious joe

    There is only justice; anything else, making claims to “justice” is simply making an excuse as to why some injustice should be perpetrated upon some other group. Such is “climate justice” – it makes some excuse as to why a substantial injustice, in this case, fleecing the cash of the developed world, should be done to benefit (1) third world countries, and, more importantly, (2) those who handle the cash on its way to the beneficiary… such that the beneficiary receives very little.

    • certop

      yeah let’s not forget the real victims here: developed economies who built their wealth by polluting the planet with impunity for the last century and a half. how many more rich countries will be “fleeced” by the opprobrium of villainous “third-world countries” before we come to our senses? as if the same seas now burying pacific islands could breach our shores as well!

      • Serious joe

        Please name a pacific island that has been “burying” (perhaps inundating, flooding?). There aren’t any…

        Pollution has been greatly curtailed in the USA and Canada; not so in China or India. Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant. Let’s quit chasing lies and concentrate on actual pollutants, like sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen…

        • certop

          i’m in favor of curbing pollution of all varieties and in all countries, by international agreements, civil society actions, investments in renewables, and domestic legislation.

          obviously carbon dioxide does not pollute in the same way as toxic chemicals, but if you are suggesting it doesn’t have heat-trapping qualities, then i don’t know what to tell you. there is virtually no debate about that among actual scientists.

          • serious joe

            There’s lots of debate about carbon dioxide, most of it far more educational than emotional. It is just suppressed.

            Ross Gelbsan, former journalist: “Not only do journalists not have a responsibility to report what skeptical scientists have to say about global warming. They have a responsibility not to report what these [skeptical] scientists say.”

            Briefly, the effects of any of the so-called “greenhouse” gases aren’t linear, they have diminishing returns; the follow a logarithmic curve that asymptotically approaches zero effect. CO2 has a significant effect from, say, none, to 20 ppm; less, as you go from 20ppm to 40ppm; less than the noise as you go from 380ppm to 400ppm; it’s all petered out. Ditto for methane. Plus, the infrared spectral ranges of absorption (methane OR CO2) overlap significantly with that of water vapor. Water, of course, being far more numerous by count of molecules, by volume, by weight… Plus, this isn’t a test tube. Water vapor carries heat energy, as latent heat, as it travels up through the troposphere (where the bulk of the other “greenhouse” gases are)… at the top of the troposphere, water condenses, then freezes, releasing that non-infrared-radiation latent heat ABOVE the CO2, where it can now radiate freely into space; since the temperature is now about zero Celcius, the spectra is shifted to longer wavelengths… Plus, there is a lot of noise (unpublished) that these gases aren’t “blackbodies” and the whole radiative balance calculation may be based upon false pretenses (we’ll see)… Plus the earth is actually thermostatically regulated by nonlinear, emergent weather phenomena, known as thunderstorms… plus clouds are NOT always forcing warmer, as the models have been programmed… clouds offer significant COOLING by reflecting insolation… but I said this would be short… but wait, CO2 is plant food…

      • serious joe

        “seas burying pacific islands” – not

        sea level is not changing much. Did you know, “sea level rise” is slowing down? Actual measurements show that. There is no sign of anthropogenic changes, no evidence of mankind’s influence, in the sea level data. Sea level is rising, and should rise, for obvious natural causes. It is nothing to worry about.

        More to the fact you mentioned pacific…
        Austrailia’s ABC, June 2010, headline: “Pacific islands growing, not sinking”

        ABC: “Climate scientists have expressed surprise at findings that many low-lying Pacific islands are growing, not sinking.”

        “Islands in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia are among those which have grown, largely due to coral debris, land reclamation and sediment.”

        “The findings, published in the magazine New Scientist, were gathered by comparing changes to 27 Pacific islands over the last 20 to 60 years using historical aerial photos and satellite images.”

        “Auckland University’s Associate Professor Paul Kench, a member of the team of scientists, says the results challenge the view that Pacific islands are sinking due to rising sea levels associated with climate change.”

        Kench: “Eighty per cent of the islands we’ve looked at have either remained about the same or, in fact, gotten larger,” he said. “Some of those islands have gotten dramatically larger, by 20 or 30 per cent. “We’ve now got evidence the physical foundations of these islands will still be there in 100 years.”

        On the general topic of sea level rise, While pontificating about Climate Change causing sea level rises, AlGore, Tim Flannery, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Greg Combet all bought expensive beach-front property, subject to flooding if sea levels actually rise, as they predict. Look where their money is…

        Coral atolls and islands have previously demonstrated their ability to survive a rise in sea levels, for example, the 120 meters of sea level rise, since the glaciation from last ice age melted. Under natural conditions, live coral is able to grow, keeping pace with sea levels. If sea level actually does rise in the vicinity of these coral atoll or islands, and some action of mankind is actually at fault for their demise, it is likely to be the fault of the people who live there. The destruction the natural coral by creating roads, causeways, and buildings; dumping sewage, permitting bad fishing practices, is unwise. Without thriving, live coral, these islands have no coral growth to help keep them above water. Some of this damage was done to strategic coral structures in the Pacific by military actions in the war years, or the obvious atmospheric nuclear detonations (not by the people who live there), but residents and their development may be at fault in other coral locations.

        Corals naturally grow on anything shallow enough for them to anchor, if the rest of the water is fine… Volcanic islands would appear, and corals would attach to their shores; later, as the volcanic ash slumped back into the sea, the corals would continue to grow, and reach up, compensating for the slumping stuff they anchored to… leaving a lagoon in the center… the classic image of a coral atoll, with the shallow water in the center… Keep the coral alive, and it can grow upwards, easily keeping pace with a few inches per decade of natural sea level rise. Corals fix carbon, so dating them is easier than dating volcanic rock. Isotopic studies have shown that coral islands and atolls that exist today, existed long ago, thus they survived the really fast and large sea level rise as the land-ice from the last glaciation melted off, some 120 meters of sea level rise…

        See the PDF at on several pages, for sea level anomalies, in a colored graphic format. The text says that, up to 2010, a sea level rise trend of about 3mm/year was determined mathematically from the data; see the papers cited above for discussion on how the trends have dropped. In Kiribati, at one point, the sea level dropped 250mm, which made the trend shift to negative for several months. Kiribati, Tuvalu, and other pacific coral atolls and islands do not appear to be under any threat of inundation, certainly not from any anthropogenic climate effects. By eyeball, I can see no trends on the sea level charts. It takes mathematical masturbation to make a slope show up. Nothing dramatic there.

        Alarmist-claims, about warming due to carbon dioxide, have a logical consequence. Since carbon dioxide levels continue to rise at a very steady rate, the the amount of forced warming should be increasing. This warming should produce not just a rise in sea level, but an accelerating rate of rise. Sea levels have been rising at a steady rate for many decades before the onset of mankind’s burning of fossil fuels. The alarmist theory of forced warming, if true, requires an accelerating rate of sea level rise. Measurements show that sea level rise is not accelerating, and recent data indicates a deceleration (which is expected, since earth’s surface and low atmospheric temperature measurements show no warming in the last seventeen and a half years or more, by not just one, but three temperature datasets). Science isn’t done by consensus or voting. In science, a theory is shot down if one fact shoots a hole in it. The lack of acceleration is one of those holes in the theory of “Global Warming”, even if you rename it to “Climate Change” or “Climate Disruption”.

        A new paper by Beenstock et al. finds global mean sea levels rose at only 1 mm/year, equivalent to less than 4 inches per century, over the 203 year period from 1807-2010.

        The authors also find no acceleration of sea level rise, which indicates that there is no human influence upon sea levels. In addition, the authors find that sea level rise is a local, rather than global, phenomenon; 61% of the tide gauge records show no change in sea levels, 4% show a decrease, and a minority of 35% show a rise. This implies that relative sea level change is primarily related to subsidence (land sinking), or post-glacial rebound (land rising) rather than sea level changes from melting ice on land, or from thermal expansion (called “steric”, from warming).

        Their measurement of sea level rise agrees well with the 1.1-1.3 mm/yr (4.3 to 5.1 inches per century) found by the NOAA 2005-2012 Sea Level Budget, which used both satellite and buoy data. They found no acceleration of sea level rise. NOAA: “The regional patterns of sea level change, however, are many times larger, and can be extremely complex.”

        Sea level rise is a local phenomenon. A lack of measured acceleration of sea level rise dooms the alarmist theory of “Global Warming”.

        Even more peer-reviewed, journal-published research shows that the rate of sea level rise is slowing. A paper by Ablain, Cazename, et al, “These new calculations highlight a reduction in the rate of sea level rise since 2005, by ∼2 mm/yr. This represents a 60% reduction, compared to the 3.3 mm/yr sea level rise (glacial isostatic adjustment correction applied) measured between 1993 and 2005. Since November 2005, MSL [mean sea level] is accurately measured by a single satellite, Jason-1. However, the error analysis performed here, indicates that the recent reduction in MSL [mean sea level rise] rate is real.” … “One of the most important indicators of global warming is the global Mean Sea Level (MSL), which integrates the response of many components of the climate system. … Tide gauge records have shown, that during the 20th century, global MSL has risen at an average rate of about 1.7 mm/yr (Church and White, 2006, Jevre- jeva et al., 2008). Since 1993, altimeter measurements from TOPEX/Poseidon (T/P) and Jason-1 satellites provide precise MSL measurements with global coverage (e.g., Nerem and Mitchum, 2001; Cazenave and Nerem, 2004; Leuliette et al., 2004; Nerem et al., 2006). The most recently published study using altimeter data reports a global MSL rate of 3.3±0.4 mm/yr over the 1993-2006 time span (Beckley et al., 2007). If the Global Isostatic Adjustment (GIA) correction … {about 0.3 mm/yr}; (Peltier, 2004)) is accounted, this rate increases to 3.6 mm/yr. However, differences in estimated MSL rates, from different authors, up to 0.7 mm/yr, are commonly reported. It is likely that such a scatter mostly results from differences in data processing and in applied geophysical corrections.”

        A paper in 2010 by Manfred Wenzel and Jens Schröter,

        in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Oceans, did not find the telltale signs of mankind’s influence, as predicted by “Global Warming” theory. The paper confirms other studies of tide gauge records which show that there has been no statistically significant acceleration in sea level rise over the past 100+ years, in contrast to statements of the IPCC and AlGore.

        Wenzel & Schröter: “The global mean sea level for the period January 1900 to December 2006 is estimated to rise at a rate of 1.56 ± 0.25 mm/yr [0.061 inches per year, roughly six inches per century] which is reasonably consistent with earlier estimates, but we do not find significant acceleration. The regional mean sea level of the single ocean basins show mixed long-term behavior. While most of the basins show a sea level rise of varying strength there is an indication for a mean sea level fall in the southern Indian Ocean. Also for the the tropical Indian and the South Atlantic no significant trend can be detected. Nevertheless, the South Atlantic as well as the tropical Atlantic are the only basins that show significant acceleration. On shorter timescales, but longer than the annual cycle, the basins sea level are dominated by oscillations with periods of about 50–75 years and of about 25 years…” The rate of sea level rise, as determined by satellite altimetry (which is only available since 1992 and is calibrated to tide gauges) has decelerated over the past 5 years from 3.2 mm/yr to only 1.5 mm/yr, about the same rate as calculated by Holgate for the period 1954-2003.”

        According to the 2012 NOAA sea level budget,

        global sea levels rose at only 1.1 – 1.3 mm/year from 2005-2012, which is less than half of the rate claimed by the IPCC (3.1 mm/yr) and is equivalent to less than five inches per century. The acceleration of sea level rise, crucial to proving the alarmist’s “Global Warming” theory, is absent.

        The report compares sea level rise, calculated from two different methods. The first uses satellite altimetry measurements of sea surface level relative to the satellite’s orbital altitude. The second method combines ARGO (ocean buoy) measurements of ocean temperature, to calculate the the steric (thermal expansion) change to ocean volume, plus the GRACE satellite measurements estimating the ocean’s mass. The rate of sea level rise, using the ARGO & GRACE method, shows a sea level rise of only 0.2 (ARGO) + 0.1 (GRACE) = 0.3 mm/yr.

        NOAA: “The regional patterns of sea level change, however, are many times larger and can be extremely complex. Steric sea level change is the dominant contributor to the spatial trend patterns observed for total sea level … While the global ocean has been gaining mass from the continents during this period, the Indian Ocean continues to show a net loss of mass to the other basins (Chambers and Willis 2009).”

        Only by adding on a relatively large and highly questionable Gobal Isostatic Adjustment, (based on a computer model, Paulson’s, from 2007) of 0.9 mm/yr to the GRACE data, do the two estimates come close to agreement. Following this questionable Global Isostatic Adjustment adjustment, the ARGO + GRACE estimate is 1.1± 0.8 mm/yr as compared to the satellite altimetry estimate of 1.3 ± 0.9 mm.

        Figuring sea level is not an easy thing. First off, sea level should be rising (normally and naturally, nothing to do with mankind’s burning of fossil fuels) just because the earth is rebounding from massive glaciation and “the little ice age” … just as the earth should be warming a bit, since it was so frozen, not very long ago in geologic time.

        About 52 million cubic kilometers of ice melted during that 10,000 year time that the glaciation retreated. “Global Warming” will need to melt at least a thousand cubic miles of ice a year, each year (about four thousand cubic kilometers per year, each year) for the next seventy-five years, to raise global sea levels by just one meter by 2100. From this link, the figure for total sea area of 139,434,000 square miles. The calculated, necessary melting does not include spillover onto low ground that is less than 1 meter above present sea level.

        Second off, determining historic sea level is problematic, as “tide gages” in the last century were constructed only to inform sailors and fishermen of the tide level, intended only to let mariners know if the tide was high enough at the moment for the ship to clear obstructions on the bottom of the harbor. Tide gage accuracy, of plus or minus half a foot, was considered adequate. Tide gages in the 1800s and 1900s were not designed for, nor intended to have, repeatable measurements accurate to a millimeter or two over the span of a year – let alone, decades. Modern satellites have only been available since 1992, and they are calibrated to select tide gages, some of which are of the questionable design and installation, as described above. Even their instruments are subject to drifts in calibration.

        Third, all the wave action, tides, variations in atmospheric pressure, storms, winds, all that has to be removed from the data, in order to see the sea level itself.

        Next, since those massive ice sheets of glaciation, stuff that covered Chicago with ice, to a height of like half a mile, well, the weight of that ice pushed the land down into the earth’s mantle quite a bit. In areas where glaciation weighed heavily upon the land, now the land is rising back up. Ocean bottoms may be rising, or sinking.

        Then we need to look at places built upon soft dirt, like Venice, Italy… the weight of the city of Venice is smushing the soft alluvial deposits of river silt, so for Venice, the mud that the city building foundations are built on, is sinking into the mud around there, more so than sea level rising around the buildings. (There is also a fresh-water issue, for Venice, subsidence due to fresh water being pumped out from under them, from an aquifer, also causes Venice to sink.)

        So, the measurement of “sea level” is, in part, a competition between moving water and moving land. The tide gage measurement device, which is mounted on land that isn’t holding still, and often attached to any convenient structure, such as a wooden pier, set in place by wooden pilings set in mud; Not only is the land going up and down, and the gage itself inadequately fixed in position, but the total volume of water in all the ocean basins may be changing. According to the alarmist theory, the total volume is increasing because of ice on land melting (remember, melting of ice floating on the ocean doesn’t change sea level). Then there’s the little bit of warming that most everybody, denier and alarmist alike, seem to agree upon. When the earth warms, the oceans take a lot longer to warm than the land and the air. It takes at least twice the amount of heat energy to warm a gram of seawater, than it does to warm a gram of dirt. So as the oceans warm a bit to catch up with the warmed land, the water expands, too. Scientists call that portion, the steric component. As a subset of land movement, there’s the action of the bottom of the oceans – since the land mass of the continents was squished down by massive ice glaciation, while simultaneously, a large amount of the ocean’s water became land-ice, in some areas the bottom of the ocean rose upwards in response; As all that ancient glaciation melted, each bit of sea level rise placed the weight of that water on the ocean bottom. So now, in some places, the total volume of the ocean basin is enlarging as the ocean bottoms sink back down. In other places, geologic actions are bring the bottom of the ocean upwards. The variations in the earth’s atmospheric pressure make a difference in sea level. Differences in the composition of the earth’s crust and interior cause variations in the power of gravity in different spots; sea water piles up over regions of higher gravity, and is more shallow over areas of weaker gravity. The earth spins, which produces forces that mis-shape the oceans from a perfect spherical shape. Winds blow, which piles up sea water in some areas, leaving shallow spots elsewhere. Evaporation leaves behind saltier sea water, which is more dense, which makes a lower spot; river and rain water are fresh (less dense) and make for higher spots. It sound small, but the “Climate Change” alarmists are worried about a few millimeters per year, the thickness of a dime.. so it matters. All in all, changes in sea level, differences in sea level are remarkably local, not global. Bizzare, eh? So there are scientists who have tried to compensate for all this land and sea-bottom changes. They came up with a fiddle factor, called “the isostatic adjustment”. They apply this mathematical masturbation to actual measurements; but since sea level rise isn’t a global phenomenon, this fiddling is improperly applied when it is done globally. In favor of the alarmists, this compensation factor makes the sea level number a little higher.