Political Ecology of Climate Change in Africa

25 January 2011, 09:30 - 11:30

CRASSH

Dr Sharath Srinivasan (CG+HR, POLIS, King's)
Dr Elizabeth Watson (Geography, Newnham)

A series of six seminars on Tuesdays in term at 9.30am from Tuesday 25 January 2011. The teaching seminar is intended for PhD students who have registered beforehand.  For further information, please contact the convenors. 

Summary

This pilot course will allow a range of academics and graduate students across diverse disciplines in Cambridge to explore critically the incidence, consequence and response to climate change in Africa, with a view to developing a major research collaboration in Cambridge on this timely and important subject as well as sustaining cross-departmental Masters teaching between the Departments of Geography and Politics and International Studies (POLIS), and the Centre of African Studies.

Macro-environmental shocks disproportionately affect poor people. This leaves people in Africa north of the Equator especially vulnerable, where desertification in the Sahel and successive droughts in the Horn and north east of the continent have already wreaked havoc on livelihoods. The spectre of climate change already looms large over this region and the plight of its people, yet the material and discursive bases of this problematic remain under-researched and poorly interrogated. Climate change undoubtedly now matters greatly to social and political dynamics in Africa, but we must distinguish the unique ways in which it is made to matter, by whom, and for what purpose. At the core of this deficit lies a gap in cross-disciplinary treatment of the subject, which addresses intersections between material and social dimensions of climate change at different levels, from the local to the global. 

Abstract

This pilot course will bring together geographical approaches to environment and society with political approaches to governance and human rights. It will build on and develop a political ecology approach, which understands the environment – and climate change – as the product of material and physical processes combined with discursive and political ones. In political ecology, the environment is seen as a force influencing material and political outcomes, but also as a major site of social and political struggle. The governance of climate change involves in the first instance the politics of how the scientific facts of climate change and the policy agenda of response are constructed. This contestation takes place at different interlinked scales and has different forms. For example, how do we analyse the steps by which local cases of cattle-raiding in northern Kenya or Southern Sudan are subsumed into the global crisis of environment debated at an inter-governmental summit in Copenhagen? In Africa, there have long been multi-level struggles between groups, regions and nations over natural resources such as land, water, and oil. Such struggles have also gone to the heart of recent state formation contestations concerning identity, indigeneity and resource ownership. 

With environment increasingly a dominant categorical frame in the political economy of inter-group struggle, discursive struggles now take place over science, and the extent and nature of climate change and its manifestations. They also take place over the agenda, as politicians and policy-makers vie to get different crises recognised as environmental in a move that disguises other dimensions of conflict and which may engender other forms of national and international support. The conflict in Darfur, Sudan, exemplifies this last kind of struggle: a disconcerting resonance exists between the Sudanese state’s depoliticisation of the violence as local, tribal and resource-based and the characterisation of the conflict by international leaders, such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, as the ‘world’s first climate change war’.

The first part of the course will examine the different struggles produced from the intersection of the environment, society and politics. It will also examine the consequences of these material (environmental), social and political processes operating at different interlinked scales, and investigate their impacts on livelihoods, on migration and displacement, and on the emergence of societal conflict in this politically unstable region. The second part of the course will look at the politics of current approaches to address some of the problems. As climate change has been shown to be a social and political site of contestation as much as a material one, the policies must be also social, political and institutional as well as technological. This part will examine different regimes of environmental governance, and approaches to understanding environmental rights as human rights.

The course will focus on north-east Africa, although comparative cases from other parts of Africa will also be used. The aim is to draw on the expertise from Geography and from POLIS to generate empirically-informed insights with regard to these most pressing environmental and political problems. The course will be convened and taught by Watson (Geography) and Srinivasan (POLIS), but it also intended that other scholars working on these issues in anthropology, history, law and politics will contribute to the sessions.