The standard, “flirting with apocalypse” narrative that dominates U.S. media coverage and political debates regarding climate change goes something like this: China, which is the world’s biggest carbon emitter, and India, which is lightly industrialized and still quite substantially poor, currently represent the biggest threats to saving the environment. The supposedly more altruistic West, by contrast, is prepared to make huge investments to forestall disaster.
People who cling to this all-too-easy framing correctly say that if the world’s two most-populous countries do not radically constrain their carbon output, nothing the United States or Europe can do, including rapidly attaining net-zero emissions, will be enough to spare the world from catastrophe. Adding to this, conservatives warn that if China and India don’t agree to difficult and costly reforms in their use of energy, Western publics will find it unacceptable to bear these burdens themselves.
While views like this show no sign of losing their purchase on the climate change narrative, the shortcomings inherent in this characterization of the world’s predicament are stark. Limiting the frame of reference to the West versus China and India not only badly miscasts the historical background of the global carbon emergency, but also impedes the kind of forward-looking thinking that is so badly needed if human society is ever to work its way out of this dire situation.
It is commonly understood by climate specialists, and yet rarely emphasized in U.S. coverage of this issue, that for all the alarm about the growing contributions of China and India to worldwide carbon emissions, the United States is still by far the greatest culprit in this disaster. Since 1850, when industrialization began producing human-made atmospheric carbon in substantial quantities for the first time, the United States has created 509 gigatons of carbon, or a fifth of the cumulative total. China, which got off to a very late start, has produced 284 gigatons. India trails by a huge distance, at “only” 86 gigatons.
Discrepancies like these—as well as the greatly staggered pace of economic development between these three large countries, with China and India only much belated entrants into the industrial age and its race for wealth—explain a lot of Beijing and New Delhi’s reluctance to accept more of the burden of eliminating carbon emissions. Of course, historical justifications like these won’t save humans from the consequences of climate change, but if we are to make the maximum progress possible, they must not only be understood, but taken more firmly into account in terms of the parceling out of costs and, indeed, future pain.
This brings us to the part of the world that has been largely excluded from these considerations and which, if not helped, will make all of humanity’s attempts to limit climate change futile: the Global South in general, but Africa most particularly. This continent’s population is on a growth path that exceeds anything ever seen in human history, and yet it is poised to become a demographic giant against a backdrop of little industrialization and widespread, enduring poverty. As many geographically detailed climate change projections make clear, Africa will bear some of the harshest impacts of rising temperatures. But unlike China and India, it has little wherewithal on its own to navigate through this crisis.
Getting the world to a survivable climate future will require taking Africans and these deep historical injustices into account, something that climate diplomacy has so far completely failed to do.
Properly coming to grips with this situation requires deepening our understanding of the history of the modern age, whose very creation was made possible by African sacrifices. As I have documented in my new book, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War,” the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation production model that it made possible turned the Western Hemisphere into an immensely lucrative project for Europe. Although their contribution has been widely overlooked, enslaved Africans were critical to the production of the precious metals in the New World—gold and silver—that have long been accorded importance in traditional accounts of Western economic history.
But people brought from Africa were also responsible for an enormous, centuries-long boom in commodity wealth derived from the production of sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco and cotton. Even more than gold and silver, the windfall derived from their sweat and blood transformed European economies, and indeed life itself on that continent, to an extent that remains vastly underestimated and generally overlooked.
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The dramatic advances realized by Europeans and their offspring during the creation of what we nowadays call the West came at a drastic cost for Africa’s own population and therefore that continent’s productivity in this era. At least 12.5 million enslaved people were brought in chains to the Americas, but this already huge number does not reflect the enormous death toll inflicted on the continent in the drive to obtain people for sale into bondage. Nor does it include the large numbers of Africans who died at sea in the floating coffins that slavers used to transport them. Taken together, one can easily imagine a population of, say, 20 million to 40 million people lost from Africa to the European slave trade, in an era when the overall population of the continent was probably about 100 million people. Seen against this backdrop, the African demography that some point to with increasing alarm in the context of climate debates in fact merely represents a rebound from this previous mass slaughter.
Africa’s contribution to Western development did not end with the slave trade, either. During the colonial era that lasted from the late 19th century to the 1960s across most of the continent, Europeans conscripted large numbers of Africans to fight in their wars, while obliging the rural masses to participate in slavery’s near kin: forced labor in order to continue producing commodities and raw materials for Western consumption. Because of the pervasive mythology of the “white man’s burden,” few in the West know that European development programs on the continent only began piecemeal and on a very small scale after World War II, and that this took place against the backdrop of continued corvee labor.
Getting the world to a survivable climate future will require taking Africans and these deep historical injustices into account, something that climate diplomacy has so far completely failed to do. Africans have instead been limited to the margins of meetings like the ongoing COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, while others, notably in Europe, make decisions that will decide the future of everything from the extraction of oil and gas on the continent to the conservation of African forests and wetlands.
The West is incapable of imposing its climate priorities on China and India, which have the wherewithal to produce, acquire and burn hydrocarbons in whatever quantities they deem necessary to fuel their economies and lifestyles. By contrast, it may be able to keep most of Africa’s huge hydrocarbon reserves in the ground or undersea, cutting off an important revenue stream for many poor countries. What the West will not be able to do is to tell Africans that they must huddle in the dark without electricity or move about without access to modern transportation indefinitely. It cannot consign what by century’s end will be 3 billion to 5 billion people to indefinite underdevelopment.
African governments may be relatively powerless to push back against the efforts to exact the greatest climate sacrifice of all on this part of the world, but that does not mean that African peoples will accept this fate passively. Unless their destinies are taken firmly into account, they will move out of Africa in a migratory wave that will make anything humans have seen before look trivial. This is the real, and still untold, climate emergency of our times