THE Vatican Thursday released a highly anticipated encyclical on the environment. Pope Francis’ papal encyclical, or teaching document, is among the strongest and most authoritative statements made by the Catholic Church and it is the first time that a pope has written an encyclical about environmental damage.
Francis’ controversial document described how climate change is ruining our planet and that this is due to a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he placed most of the blame on fossil fuels and human activity while warning of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us” if fast action is not taken.
Developed, industrialised countries were mostly responsible, he said, and were obligated to help poorer nations confront the crisis since it was due to the “the enormous consumption of some rich countries”.
This is because the most vulnerable victims were the world’s poorest people, those “dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry” who he said are being disregarded.
Following a leak of the encyclical in an Italian newspaper on Monday, the negative backlash came quickly from certain high profile American Republicans - those who question or deny human-caused climate change.
But Africans should be celebrating the declaration since the impacts of climate change are already highly visible in Africa, where the world’s most vulnerable populations live, and because Francis has made clear that he hopes the encyclical will influence energy and economic policy and stir a global movement.
He directly spoke to multinational companies, describing the “damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries” - damage that has already been seen in Ghana’s used electronics dump site in Agbogbloshie or toxic waste dumping off the coast of Somalia which some environmentalists say spurred pirate activity in the region.
But the principal focus for Africa will be his declarations on the “the warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”
The effects on Africa are already apparent. Last year was the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880, this according to US government and NASA scientists. What concerned the NASA scientists the most however is not that it was the hottest year on record, but that the 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000.
The cause of concern for this trend, of continuing warming, is that it can lead to extreme weather. Like the start of this year, in Africa last year, there were several incidents and evidence of volatile weather events across the continue.
For example, in January torrential rain hit many parts of Africa. Mozambican authorities and aid workers said the floods were the worst natural disaster to hit the country, while in parts of Malawi the government declared a state of emergency as thousands of people were left homeless and without food.
In Kenya prolonged droughts, usually caused by increasingly poor performing rains, are having devastating effects on the North of the country. Last year approximately 1.6million people were affected by 26 months of drought.
A malnutrition rate of more than 15% is classified as a critical emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), yet in many parts of the country it exceeded 20%.
Warmer temperatures also cause rising sea levels since, as water gets warmer, it takes up more space. Each drop of water only expands by a little bit, but when you multiply this expansion over the entire depth of the ocean, it all adds up and causes sea level to rise.
Today, continental Africa comprises 48 countries of which 33 have coastlines and there are also seven adjacent island nations and territories.
It is estimated that at least 25% of Africa’s population lives within 100km of a sea coast. Africa’s low-lying areas will have more frequent flooding, and very low-lying land could be submerged completely.
We’ve already seen this across Africa, particularly on the coastal areas of Mozambique, or affecting cities such as Lagos - a very real and worrying prospect considering Nigeria’s sea-level rise is expected to continue at about 3.1mm a year.
Be afraid of desertification
Another impact of climate variation, though not the sole reason for it, is desertification. In Africa, because approximately two-thirds of the African continent is desert or drylands, a great proportion of the continent is at high risk of increased desertification.
The worst affected areas are along desert margins and today in total about 485 million people are affected as the Sahel creeps south by approximately 3,600 square km a year. The impact can be seen in the displaced communities from Lake Turkana, Darfur, around Lake Chad to the northern parts of Mali, Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic, who are migrating and increasingly displaced.
But while the Pope has said that human action is one of the drivers of climate change, it was not all doom and gloom and there was a real sense of hope as he still believes there is time to change our ways and still save our world.