Why climate change is a threat that Nigeria cannot afford to ignore
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
This essay was written for the '60 Years, 60 Voices – Essays on Nigeria at 60' project, a collection of essays that critically examines Nigeria’s social, economic, and political situation and proposes solutions for the advancement of the country. It is to be launched on October 1, 2020 which marks 60 years since Nigerian independence.
Nigeria’s life as an independent country can be characterised as one of alternating periods of relative peace and relative conflict. During periods of heightened tensions, Nigeria feels like the “mere geographical expression” that Awolowo described, evident in the tendency of many Nigerians to identify with other forms of identity—religious or cultural—before our national one. The unholy matrimony of entities of distinct religions, cultures and political modes of organisation that produced Nigeria created a geopolitical landscape that is matched by few other countries in its complexity. The union of previously autonomous or semi-autonomous regions/tribes made to share political and economic resources has been plagued by tensions which, on occasion, have led to a near dissolution of the marriage, most notably during the civil war. Just as the existence of a forest is necessary but not sufficient for a forest fire to occur, diversity is necessary but not sufficient for identity-based conflict. Thus, it is wrong to attribute Nigeria’s myriad ethnic and religious clashes solely to the heterogeneity of its peoples. Moreover, this diversity was inherent in our country’s design, yet mutual antagonism has waxed and waned over time. An ‘ignition source’ is required, and it is important to explore the factors that have tipped the precarious balance towards the side of conflict. I will not attempt a thorough examination of Nigeria’s history—that is an exercise beyond the scope of this essay and my expertise. Instead I will defer to the scholarly literature which suggests that prejudice increases during periods of increased perceived scarcity of resources — ‘perceived’ because it is not necessary that resources are actually scarcer, only that they are thought to be.
The unholy matrimony of entities of distinct religions, cultures and political modes of organisation that produced Nigeria created a geopolitical landscape that is matched by few other countries in its complexity.
History suggests that it is the inequality of political power or socio-economic resources that most exacerbates ethnoreligious divisions in Nigeria and sparks violence. The 1966 Unification Decree was interpreted by the north as an attempt to establish Igbo hegemony; the anti-Igbo pogroms that followed emboldened secessionist demands which ultimately led to the civil war. The period of relative stability that followed the war coincided with an oil boom. With its end and the collapse of the Second Republic, clashes returned . Aside from long-running interethnic confrontations, the clashes that occurred in the decades that followed were due to political (1999-2000 clashes following change of government), land (farmer-herder conflict) or natural resource (militancy in the Niger Delta) disputes. Recent worsening economic conditions have intensified interethnic vitriol, seemingly confirming the link between scarcity and conflict.
Given the importance of the natural environment for livelihoods in Nigeria, it is surprising that environmental security—defined as the role of human-environment dynamics in maintaining social stability —is absent from mainstream socio-political commentary. Historically, environmental degradation has served as a harbinger of conflict, in Nigeria and elsewhere. Pollution caused by oil exploration activities in the Niger Delta destroyed livelihoods and the failure of government to act generated regional discontent. The anti-government/IOC  protest movements birthed from that discontent produced a multitude of militant organisations which have since disrupted oil production and, in some instances, further destroyed lives and the environment . The periodic farmer-herder clashes occur because of poor grazing land and access to water which forces herders to migrate southwards—often across ethnic and religious borders—to seek pastureland . Boko Haram’s emergence has been partially ascribed to the shrinking of Lake Chad and reduced pastureland which were vital for subsistence farmers in the North-East . Their activities have further worsened drought conditions, displaced people, and aggravated instability. Environmental stresses have been linked to other violent episodes, including the 1980s Maitatsine riots. This cyclical relationship between environmental insecurity and conflict is well-established . Environmental degradation results in unemployment and migration, and thus instability. Conversely, conflict often destroys the natural environment on which many livelihoods depend. Thus, maintaining the natural environment is important for social stability.
Environmental degradation results in unemployment and migration, and thus instability. Conversely, conflict often destroys the natural environment on which many livelihoods depend. Thus, maintaining the natural environment is important for social stability.
No phenomenon threatens the natural environment more than climate change. Since the industrial revolution, humanity has experienced much progress, as evidenced by lower mortality and poverty rates globally. Fossil fuels have driven the economic development responsible for this progress—first coal, then crude oil, and to a much lesser extent, natural gas. The burning of these fuels increased the abundance of greenhouse gases—gases that trap solar radiation—in the atmosphere and warmed the planet. The interconnectedness and complexity of the climate system mean that global warming has far-reaching and long-lasting implications beyond mere temperature rise. Extreme weather events including rainstorms, heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires are expected to become more prevalent . Warmer temperatures have already accelerated glacial retreat and sea-level rise. Migration patterns, abundances and seasonal activities of terrestrial and marine species that are crucial to maintain biodiversity and provide ecosystem services are changing . Changes in precipitation patterns have already altered the quantity and quality of water resources in many countries. The secondary effects of climatic change expected include reduced crop yields and accelerated disease spread.
Although climate change is now part of mainstream global political discourse, action to limit it has been slow. Planetary warming is expected to continur unless unprecedented changes—both in scale and rate—to established physical and socioeconomic systems are made. Given Nigeria’s susceptibility to conflict, the importance of the natural environment for our agriculture-dependent population, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, it is crucial to understand how climate change impacts Nigeria’s natural environment and to pursue action to limit the devastating effects. As previously discussed, competition for agricultural land has particularly proved contentious in the past. Climate change exacerbates this issue in two ways. Firstly, the increased frequency of droughts, already observed with the desertification of the Sahelian north, will further reduce grazing land and force herders to migrate. Secondly, coastal lowlands in the south have always been susceptible to flooding and surface erosion, with the disasters manifesting periodically. Increased rainstorms and sea level rise will only aggravate the situation and render the land unsuitable for life and agriculture. Given water’s necessity for life and economic activity, especially agriculture, its physical or economic scarcity threatens human welfare. Droughts and floods have already led to the abandonment of many villages in northern Nigeria . Further water stress will only accelerate migration that has been the source of much conflict. Boko Haram has used water and arable land as weapons; through poisoning freshwater sources and seizing areas with good pasture, they have attacked opposition and controlled local populations . Flooding and erosion are expected to facilitate the spread of disease vectors and water-borne illnesses. Finally, extreme weather can destroy physical infrastructure which intensifies a range of social issues: migration, unemployment and poverty, amongst others.
Climate change also poses indirect threats to Nigeria’s economy. In an effort to mitigate climate change, there is a conscious global effort to minimise the utilisation of fossil fuels. A sustainable energy transition has been initiated to encourage a shift to non-polluting forms of energy. Consequently, a peaking of oil demand (and subsequent decline) is expected after 150 years of uninterrupted growth. In contrast, global oil supply has been increasing. Hence it is anticipated that the oil market paradigm will shift from one of perceived scarcity to abundance, and long-run oil prices will fall accordingly . Should Nigeria’s economy remain undiversified, it risks becoming (even more) uncompetitive globally. A further economic threat is posed by lower crop yields and higher disease spread. With agriculture often looked upon as a critical avenue for economic diversification, climatic shifts that decrease agricultural productivity could deepen economic crises.
Given the evidence that perceived scarcity of socioeconomic resources is a driver of conflict, the physical and economic impacts of climate change appear particularly treacherous in a fractured geopolitical landscape such as ours. Its irreversibility—at least on a human timescale—differentiates it from other ecological disasters and further compounds its danger. Events in the Horn of Africa have already begun to show how droughts and food scarcity can lead an already fragile state into chaos through worsening economic conditions and intensified conflict . Thus, a failure to address climate change in Nigeria could increase competition over the natural environment to the extent that it threatens the stability of the state.
The planet has already warmed so climate change cannot be ‘solved’, its severity can only be limited through mitigation (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions), and adaptation (adapting systems to its impacts). To avoid widespread catastrophe, these measures are necessary at a global scale so unilateral action is insufficient. Through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)  the international community is pursuing reforms to legal and financial systems to accelerate climate action. The Paris Agreement within the UNFCCC seeks to limit average global temperature rise to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”. Each country defined its contributions to delivering the target in its nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Although Nigeria is a party to the treaty, it has failed to engage meaningfully with its processes. The upcoming 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be the first global stocktake of countries’ progress on their NDCs and a deepening of commitments is expected. It is imperative that Nigeria and other developing nations collaborate during negotiations to ensure that the countries that are most responsible for global warming (typically industrialised economies) agree to climate action commensurate with their responsibility and financial capability. Additionally, the rules on international climate finance will be defined at COP26. Thus far, this financing has been difficult to access by developing countries because of poor institutional capacity and a failure to meet transparency standards. Whilst such standards are laudable, including it as a prerequisite for critical capital is sometimes counterproductive. As one of the larger developing economies, Nigeria should champion a fairer system at the international stage.
Asides from demanding equitable international climate policies, action must also be pursued within our borders. The difficulty in achieving this became apparent to me during an interview with the World Resources Institute at COP25. I was asked to record a message encouraging climate action in Hausa and became dumbstruck because I could not muster the necessary vocabulary. Generating solutions to a problem requires awareness and acceptance. Public education on climate change is already difficult in a society with widespread economic hardship because poverty and health are often viewed as more pressing issues. The relatively low levels of English literacy and the diversity of languages spoken compound the challenge. This should be the first area of domestic action. Programmes are needed to educate the most vulnerable communities that are already experiencing climate change impacts, so they can understand the changes to their environment and plan their livelihoods accordingly. In the longer term, climate change needs to be mainstreamed into our education curricula.
The interdisciplinary nature of climate change means that a mixture of top-down and bottom-up strategies involving both technological and behavioural changes are necessary. A wide range of climate change mitigation and adaptation solutions have been proffered for Nigeria: investment in renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power to avoid fossil fuel use; afforestation and reforestation; reduction of energy use through improved energy efficiency of buildings and appliances; development of drought-tolerant crops; implementation of forest practices to increase environmental resilience to extreme weather events; construction of flood defences, et cetera . The effectiveness of these different measures will be dependent on the economic, social and political context in which they are applied. There is a dearth of research on the technical and economic feasibility of climate solutions in Nigeria so I will not attempt to propose which is best. Instead, I call for a concerted effort to mainstream climate change into development policy and economic planning at all levels of government. Funding for research and capacity-building must be made available to understand what works, where and when. Given the urgency of the problem, we cannot wait for educational reform and local capacity-building before we design and implement solutions. Organisations such as the NDC Partnership, Rocky Mountain Institute, Global Green Growth Institute, Green Climate fund as well as the multilateral institutions offer policy support to developing countries to create tailored climate solutions. We must tap into this wealth of technical expertise and collaborate with similar countries to encourage knowledge-sharing. The window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climatic shifts is shrinking every day, and our geography and low adaptive capacity leaves us especially vulnerable. This is a rallying cry to all—not just government because we also have to change how we interact with our natural environment—to learn more about this generation-defining issue and begin to act.
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