Africa Will Suffer as Donald Trump Leaves the Paris Agreement and Abdicates U.S. Leadership on Climate Change

Somali refugee Dadaaab
A Somali refugee digs a latrine on the outskirts of a refugee camp that makes up part of the giant Dadaab refugee settlement in Kenya on July 23, 2011. Africa, which is facing four droughts as a continent, is likely to suffer some of the worst effects of climate change. Oli Scarff/Getty

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord represents a decisive juncture in the world’s effort against climate change. The international community will need to rethink its approach to preparing for and mitigating climate change risks. For Africa, which is already suffering from the impact of extreme droughts, the threat is particularly acute.

While the U.S.’s formal withdrawal will not likely occur until 2020, the impact has been immediate. Traditional allies, and partner nations, have distanced themselves from the U.S. decision ; statements underscored the willingness of countries to move on without the nation that expended considerable diplomatic effort to make the agreement a reality. Rising powers, like India and China, have indicated they will try to fill the U.S. leadership gap on climate change.

The U.S. withdrawal from Paris ignores the bipartisan consensus on the necessity of treating climate change as a serious and increasing driver of state fragility. If the U.S. no longer wishes to be part of the international community’s climate agreement, other countries are unlikely to see it as a reliable partner on various other necessary steps for preparing for climate risks outside the agreement, such as responding to the impacts of climate change that are already occurring.

As noted in a Defense Science Board report from 2011, Africa is one place where leadership on climate change from the U.S. is critical “due to the vulnerability of African nations with high potential to intersect with United States national interests.” The entire continent sits at the intersection of geostrategic shifts and trends that the international community will need to carefully manage if it is to avoid climate-driven societal or state breakdowns, with potentially violent consequences.*

One important trend is energy poverty. While the continent has made great strides in recent years at improving energy access, the World Bank still estimates that to achieve total electrification by 2030—one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—the continent will have to provide electricity to 60 million people per year between now and then. Lack of electricity robs people of access to critical services—such as round-the-clock medical care—as well as modern conveniences that can improve human and economic security, such as refrigeration, air conditioning and modern transportation. A state that can reliably provide these has taken an important step toward improving poverty alleviation, social and, ultimately, political stability.

Another trend is increasing urbanization. Sub-Saharan Africa has a higher urbanization rate than South Asia, and that rate is only projected to increase in the decades to come.

While cities can be centers for economic growth and access to modern goods and services, this level of rapid urbanization in low-income country contexts can present myriad problems: inadequate infrastructure, lack of steady employment and feelings of political and social marginalization for communities of new arrivals. Coastal megacities, such as the 20 million-strong Lagos in Nigeria, are also set to increase in population while facing increased risks from climate-driven changes such as sea level rise, intrusion of ocean water into freshwater sources and the migration of diseases to more locations as warming continues. These trends overlap with other population stresses, such as increased climate-exacerbated displacement and migration.

Growing resource scarcity in Africa is also a worrying trend. Sophisticated mapping of water and food security indicators typically place Africa among the Middle East and South Asia as critical regions of concern. Fish stocks, for example—an important source of protein in many African countries—are increasingly likely to be a driver of conflict as they are stressed by climatic changes. These stresses do not only have to happen locally to have implications for the continent. In 2010, wildfires and drought in Russia and China contributed to a significant spike in bread prices in North Africa.

This growing scarcity of basic resources in many rural areas is pushing involuntary migration to urban areas within states, but also to opportunities in other states, either in Africa or across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Because of those multiplying resource constraints, and their linkages to real and potential security situations, Africa has long been a focus for defense and intelligence analysts inside and outside government. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment 2017 directly highlighted the geopolitical consequences of climate impacts in African hotspots, including a dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is under construction and set to become the biggest hydropower dam in Africa; however, Egypt fears the dam could reduce the amount of Nile water flowing into its territory.

Experts have highlighted the nexus of issues—climate change, food and water scarcity, migration, and ethnic and religious tensions—that contributed to the success of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. Most recently, the commander of the U.S. military command in Africa (AFRICOM), General Thomas Waldhauser, said that famine and drought were driving an increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia, especially for ships believed to carry food and oil.

A U.S. pullback from the Paris agreement at this stage, after so many countries have expended so much diplomatic effort to achieve a universal agreement—including from every nation in Africa—leaves a void open for other states aspiring to global influence. If China is the power that succeeds in electrifying Africa, buttressing financial flows for managing climate risks, and ushering in the next generation of smart cities, it will be at the direct expense of U.S. prestige in the region. Consequently, the decision to leave the Paris Agreement could be the direct cause of the collapse of U.S. soft power in a continent that will be among the future engines of global economic growth.

Luckily, the clock has not run out for the U.S. to play a constructive role in ensuring a stable and prosperous future for Africa, particularly for its growing cities. What would be required is an administration that understands the linkages between climate change and international security and is prepared to commit resources across the foreign policy spectrum—diplomacy, development, and defense—to protect poverty alleviation successes, build resilience to natural disasters and resource scarcity, help African states build climate-smart institutions, and work with allies to contain and eliminate security threats.

There is still potential for the United States to take a lead role in laying the groundwork for sustainable growth and security in Africa.

Neil Bhatiya is the climate and diplomacy fellow at the Center for Climate and Security , a nonpartisan security institute with an advisory board of senior retired military officers and national security experts

*The links between climate-exacerbated stress to security are further explored in a forthcoming Center for Climate and Security report on June 9, “Epicenters of Climate and Security: The New Geostrategic Landscape of the Anthropocene.”