West African Anti-Democratic Tendencies Threaten Climate Defense Policy Implementation

John Norris
7 min readOct 1, 2021

On September 5, 2021, American-trained special forces serving under Guinea’s president, Alpha Condé, continued an emerging trend in West Africa — they instigated a coup d’état that saw the overthrow of the man whom they were supposed to protect. The Guinean putsch was the fourth military takeover in the region, following two takeovers in Mali and a disputed succession in Chad, which together threaten the critical, albeit limited, climate defense progress that has been made in one of the world’s harshest corners of the world.

The World Bank categorizes many West African states as representing some of the most climate-vulnerable communities globally, second only to low-lying island nations. The region suffers from regular exposure to extreme weather events, including prolonged Sahel droughts, desertification, and lack of access to basic amenities, such as clean water, which has led to increasingly intense heat waves, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts could rise by an average of 6°C by the end of the century. West African stakeholders and policymakers should act swiftly to remedy identified threats by encouraging climate defense policies at the national and local level but also work collectively through regional bodies, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to pursue greater socioeconomic integration as a way to limit the destabilizing impacts that lead to future coups.

Frequent Coups Leave Little To Do

West African climate defense policies are currently limited in scope, scale and are far and few in between. Sorgho et al. (2020) note, however, that several of these regional climate frameworks are quite bold and prudently identify key areas, such as energy, agriculture, or water management, which are critical to regional security. Without the rapid implementation of effective climate defense policies, such as climate-resilient agricultural development, disaster-proof infrastructure, technological advances in clean energy, capacity-building improvements, greener systems and behavior, and better resource management, there is the very real risk that the “coup culture” will continue. This trend serves no one because frequent political upheaval tends to impact those with the lowest ability to recover disproportionately, yet are often those with the most to lose.

Coups tend to bring long periods of dysfunctional government, leaving many climate defense policies on the backburner. In the case of Guinea, which is one of the few West African nations to not have a comprehensive climate strategy, this lack of collective national action has likely meant unnecessary death and destruction for many at-risk communities. A lack of sustained regional climate action has meant that nations throughout West Africa have been forced to contend with many of the same problems that confront many other parts of the world, such as declining vegetation cover from deforestation, desertification due to weakening natural weather systems, and unsustainable urbanization, without adequate socioeconomic support. Despite recent news that the world is unlikely to limit global warming by 2°C as prescribed in the Paris Agreement, West Africa still has time to make critical, though tough, decisions that could quickly place the region as a leader in climate defense.

Great Green Wall Protects Us All

Continental Africa has gained experience in conceptualizing, planning, and implementing climate adaptive and defensive policies. Yet, there has been a lack of sustained collective involvement regionally, and the majority of efforts have been reactive versus proactive. West Africa, in particular, suffers from these maladies, and many policies fail to get successfully implemented, particularly in more rural or less-well-off areas that are especially in need of climate support.

This disparity even exists among nations, as seen in how Nigeria and Senegal, for example, have reforested thousands of acres of land, though similar efforts in Burkina Faso and Mali have been hampered by extremist violence. These border and territorial disparities are unfortunate since West Africa has an abundance of diverse floral and faunal species, yet increased population, unsustainable ecosystem services practices, and the continuous threat of elected governments falling to coups have left West Africa with few effective climate defenses. These challenges become abundantly clear when we examine the slower-than-expected progress made on the ‘Great Green Wall of Africa.’

This modern feat of adaptive geoengineering, which takes its namesake from one of the seven World Wonders, is an ambitious project that will span 21 countries and intends to protect Africa by the year 2030 — not from foreign invaders but from the creeping deserts that are increasingly encroaching on human settlements. Ignoring the complex physical demands required, this nearly $14 billion initiative has also demanded extensive cooperation among African policymakers, foreign investors and supporters, and the private sector, which is no easy task. This climate defense program, however, has the potential to increase continental prosperity through increased environmental services and by sequestering as many as 275 million tons of carbon. International and national agencies are increasingly advocating for environmental peacebuilding as a way to encourage competitors to tackle shared climate-based threats, as seen in relations between China and the U.S. Sadly, given the snail’s pace by which the Great Green Wall is being constructed, there is the risk that it won’t gain enough significant traction to create a lasting impact on mitigating climate change and the prevalence of coups within West Africa.

That being said, there are several things West African nations can do to prepare themselves better. First, they could emulate other African programs or policies that have proven effective at providing climate defenses in other nations across the continent. Specifically, they could look to Ethiopia’s Programme of Adaptation to Climate Change, which includes sectoral, regional, national, and local community levels, or Lesotho’s coordinated policy framework, which involves decision-makers from all levels of government. Other examples of the more programmatic approach of national climate-resilient development strategies include Rwanda’s National Strategy on Climate Change and Low Carbon Development and the Pilot Programs for Climate Resilience in Niger, Zambia, and Mozambique, while the still successful 1964 Lake Chad Basin Commission provides for a real solution for water-related tensions.

West Africa should take advantage of these previous schemes and use the recent African Union investments, which include a $1.3 billion investment in the Sahel Commission’s investment plan and a $20 million solar energy initiative that aims to increase the share of renewable energy from 35% to 48% by 2030, as a down payment on building regional climate defenses.

West Africa…The Time to Act is Now!

West African policymakers must begin to reduce the impacts of climate change by adopting climate defense policies or measures at multiple scales — ranging from local to national and regional levels. ECOWAS recently announced that it was developing a regional climate strategy that would be presented later this year at COP26 in Glasgow. ECOWAS is expected to provide coordinated actions to its members that will seek to strengthen climate defense ambitions while protecting vulnerable socioeconomic sectors through the support of transnational initiatives, the mobilization of additional financial resources for sustainable, low-carbon, and resilient development.

This welcome news followed the earlier release of a joint ECOWAS-West African Development Bank guide on how the region will meet obligations outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, this news has been dimmed by the constant punctuation of coups, which, if allowed to continue, could lead to these climate-based frameworks not only stalling but ultimately failing to be implemented. West African policymakers should place greater emphasis on providing climate defenses to countries in the regions and on further integrating nations that are under the greatest climate pressure. Shoring up climate defenses will help provide stability and security to a region that is fraught with frequent environmental instability and often falls victim to violent coups.

References (Chronologically)

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John Norris

Graduate student from NYU's Center for Global Affairs interested in the intersection between climate change and security, with an emphasis in disaster relief.