Hamza Hamouchene and Mika Minio-Paluello, editors, The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice. Platform (London), Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (North Africa), and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA), 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?
Hamza Hamouchene and Mika Minio-Paluello (HH & MM-P): The idea was both to highlight the violence of climate change in North Africa, and the need for an indigenous response. We wanted to point out that survival relies on structural change, and on facing the challenge of talking about climate justice in Arabic.
Climate change is already a reality in North Africa. People are dying and communities are being forced off their lands, with stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, as deserts grow and sea levels rise.
There is a growing literature in Arabic on the threat, but this knowledge production is dominated by neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and European Union agencies. They highlight the dangers of a warmer world and they argue for urgent action. But their analysis of climate change does not include questions of class, justice, power, or colonial history. They re-empower those who have wealth, and their vision of the future is marked by economies subjugated to private profit and further privatization of water, land—even the atmosphere.
There is no reference to the historic responsibility of the industrialized West for causing climate change, of the crimes of oil companies like British Petroleum and Shell, or the climate debt owed to the Global South. Most Arabic-language writing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa includes no references to oppression—or to resistance.
We wanted to point to the failure and bankruptcy of the global climate talks. These have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions like carbon trading, instead of forcing industrialized nations to reduce carbon emissions and leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Through compiling and editing this book, our goal was to counteract the dominant neoliberal discourse on climate change in Arabic, and point to the need for a revolutionary alternative grounded in justice.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HH & MM-P: We think this is the first book in Arabic to address climate justice (though we would be really happy if that is not the case!). It includes six essays on climate violence and false solutions in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and the wider region.
A further fifteen essays introduce inspiring and liberating perspectives advanced by radical and progressive intellectuals, activists, politicians, organizations, and grassroots groups from the Global South. We selected essays, interviews, and statements in which social movements describe what they are fighting against, how they are organizing, and what they are demanding. The chapters cover a broad geography—from Ecuador to India, South Africa to the Philippines.
The book addresses the burning issue of climate change in North Africa and the Global South through a justice lens rather than a security one. A future framed around “security” subjugates our struggles to a conceptual and imaginative framework that ultimately re-empowers the state’s repressive power. Through the different articles and essays, we argue that the climate crisis is the epitome of capitalist and imperialist exploitation of people and the planet. Climate change is a class war—a war by the rich against the working classes, the small farmers, and the poor who carry the burden on behalf of the privileged.
There are four sections in the book, with twenty-one chapters. The first section, “The Violence of Climate Change,” highlights the scale of the threat posed by climate change. The second section, “System Change Not Climate Change,” points to the economic and power structures driving climate change, and what a different system should look like. The third section, “Beware the False Solutions,” examines how the powerful have attempted to use the climate crisis to profit and entrench inequality by pushing false solutions. The final section, “Organizing for Survival and Climate Justice,” looks at how people are mobilizing for a different future.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HH & MM-P: Given the pressures of authoritarianism, mass repression, and widespread poverty, it is understandable that limited attention has been paid by social movements or the left in North Africa to climate change in the past. The book is in a way a form of solidarity with the left in North Africa in their struggle to articulate a localized, democratic response to climate change, incorporating political, economic, social, class, and environmental analysis.
In many ways, climate change offers the left a chance to reshape politics. Coping with the dramatic transformation will require a break with the existing militarist, colonial, and neoliberal projects.
We also hope that environmentalists in North Africa will find this book useful. Climate politics in the Arabic-speaking world is controlled by the rich and powerful. The jobs, the funding, and the opportunities around environmental issues are mostly corporate or tied to institutions like GIZ or the International Finance Corporation (IFC). This makes the politics conservative and stifling, and leaves environmentalists stuck in narrow bubbles, and struggling to connect with the mass movements needed to win.
Ultimately, the aim is not to tell people in North Africa what to think, or which concepts to use, but to offer some starting points, some challenges, and some questions. What does a just response to climate change look like in North Africa? Does it mean mass evacuation, and open borders to Europe? Does it mean payment of climate debt and redistribution—by European governments, by multinational corporations, or from rich local elites? Does it mean a radical break with the capitalist system? What should happen to the fossil fuel resources in North Africa that are currently being extracted in large part by western corporations? Who should control and own renewable energy? What does adapting to a changing climate mean, and who will shape and benefit from it?
We hope that this book can contribute to the emerging political economy of climate change in North Africa that investigates the relationships between fossil fuel industries, regional elites, and international capital.
J: In your introduction, you talk about the need for a vocabulary in Arabic to articulate the struggle for climate justice. Can you tell us more about this?
HH & MM-P: Translating the articles and essays into Arabic has been challenging, as many of the phrases and terms do not exist. How can we fight something if we don`t have a name for it and can`t articulate what we want instead? While “environmental justice” is used in Arabic, “climate justice” is not. The phrase is used widely in both Latin America and English-speaking countries. But it sounds very strange—almost silly—in Arabic. We need to change the energy systems around us—but can we talk about “energy justice” and “energy democracy” in Arabic?
We need a vocabulary to talk about these issues in Arabic, to describe the vision of a safe and just future that we can fight for. Simply importing terms and concepts from other parts of the planet will not work—for ideas to resonate with people in North Africa, they must have a grounding in North Africa. But it is still useful to interact with and learn from movements elsewhere.
Many of the articles in this book demand climate justice, environmental justice, and energy justice/energy democracy. There is no single definition for any of these concepts, but that does not undermine their value. We think it is up to the reader to decide whether these concepts are relevant to North Africa.
J: How do you see the struggle for climate justice as being linked to other revolutionary movements in North Africa?
HH & MM-P: For us, “climate justice” usually involves a recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialized West in causing global warming and bears in mind the disproportionate vulnerabilities faced by some countries and communities. It recognizes the role of power in shaping both how climate change is caused and who carries the burden. This is shaped by class, race, and gender, by colonial histories of exploitation, and by ongoing capitalist exploitation. Climate justice means breaking with “business as usual” that protects global political elites, multinational corporations, and military regimes, and a radical social and ecological transformation and adaptation process.
To come back to North Africa, those whose lives will be changed the most by climate change are the small farmers in the Nile Delta, the fisherfolk of Jerba, the inhabitants of In Salah in Algeria, the millions living in informal settlements in Cairo, Tunis, and Algiers. But they are sidelined and prevented from shaping their future. Instead, energy and climate plans are shaped by military-controlled governments and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. For all the promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are all enemies of climate justice and survival.
Therefore, the struggle for climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities most affected, and be geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy, a clean and safe environment, a future that must sit in harmony with the revolutionary demands of the African and Arab uprisings, those of national sovereignty, bread, freedom, and social justice.
Excerpt from The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice
From the Introduction, by Hamza Hamouchene and Mika Minio-Paluello
Climate change will devastate North Africa. Many will die, and millions will be forced to migrate. The desert is spreading. Crops are failing and fisherfolk are losing their livelihoods. Rain will become more erratic, water supplies dwindle and storms more intense. Summers will be hotter and winters colder. Drought is forcing villagers to abandon their homes and rising sea levels are ruining fertile land. Falling food production and shrinking water will threaten even the megacities like Cairo, Casablanca and Algiers. The next twenty years will fundamentally transform the region.
This is not an act of nature. Climate change is class war—a war by the rich against the working classes, the small farmers, the poor. They carry the burden on behalf of the privileged. The violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels—a choice made by corporations and Western governments, together with domestic elites and militaries. It is the outcome of a century of capitalism and colonialism. But these decisions are constantly being remade in Brussels, DC, and Dubai, and by more locally in Heliopolis, Lazoghly and Qattameya, Ben Aknoun, Hydra and El Marsa.
Survival relies on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and adapting to the already changing climate. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt—finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and shifting the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities. But whose interest will this adaptation be in? The same authoritarian power structures that caused climate change are shaping the response to it—to protect themselves, and make greater profits. Neoliberal institutions are articulating a climate transition, while leftist and democratic movements are largely silent. Who will be locked out of the climate-proofed gated communities of the future?
How Will Climate Change Transform North Africa?
Human-caused climate change is already a reality in North Africa. It is undermining the socioeconomic and ecological basis of life in the region, and will force change to political systems.
Recent extended droughts in Algeria and Syria were catastrophic climatic events that overwhelmed the ability of existing social and institutional structures to deal with them. Severe droughts in eastern Syriadestroyed the livelihoods of 800,000 people and killed eighty-five percent of livestock. One hundred and sixty whole villages were abandoned before 2011. Changes in the hydrological cycle will reduce freshwater supply and agricultural productions. This means more food imports of staples and higher prices in countries that are already dependent, like Egypt. Many more people will face starvation and hunger.
The desert is growing, eating the land around it. There will be huge pressure on the already-scarce water supplies. Demand is already increasing faster than population growth. Supply will fall due to changes in rainfall and seawater intrusion into ground water reserves, both driven by climate change, as well as groundwater overuse. This will place most Arab countries under the absolute water-poverty level of five hundred square meters per person.
Rising seas are forcing farmers off their land in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. Saltwater is destroying once fertile fields in the Nile Delta in Egypt and Moulouya Delta in Morocco, threatening to flood and erode vast stretches of coastal settlements, including cities like Alexandria and Tripoli. The seas themselves are changing. As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic, killing coral reefs. This will wipe out much of the Red Sea’s biodiversity, destroying the tens of thousands of livelihoods in fishing and tourism.
Summer heat will intensify. Rising temperatures and heat stress kill thousands, especially rural workers who cannot avoid heavy labor and outdoor work. The frequency and strength of extreme weather events will increase. Dust storms and freezing floods threaten the poorest urban dwellers, especially the millions of migrants living in informal settlements on the edge of cities. Refugees will have the least protection, including the Sudanese in Egypt, Malians in Algeria, Libyans in Tunisia, and Syrians in Lebanon. Without major upgrades, existing traditions and urban infrastructure won’t be able to cope, including drainage systems, emergency services, and water-sharing practices.
Warmer weather means disease creep, as water and insect-borne pathogens spread from the tropics, reaching millions never exposed to them before. Malaria and other diseases will move northwards, threatening both humans and livestock. Parasites already present in North Africa will expand their range, for example Leishmaniasis will double its “favorable” range in Morocco.
Climate chaos is already costing millions of lives and billions of dollars. The medical journal the Lancet argues that in the Arab world, “the survival of whole communities is at stake.”
The Failure of Political Leadership
Climate change is driven by burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and unsustainable agriculture encouraged by agro-business. The carbon dioxide and methane being pumped into the atmosphere are the by-product of industrial modernity. Oil, gas, coal and minerals are extracted and consumed to serve profit and state power—this is the extractivist capitalism that we live in….
Survival means leaving at least eighty percent of already proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
Every year the world`s political leaders, advisers, and media gather for another UN climate Conference of the Parties. But despite the global threat, the governments allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. Corporate power has hijacked the talks, promotes more profit-making “false solutions.” The industrialized nations (both the West and China) are unwilling to assume their responsibility, while fossil fuel powerhouses like Saudi Arabia further manipulate the process.
The Paris COP in December 2015 will receive much attention, but we know that the political leaders won`t deliver the necessary cuts to ensure survival. Power structures must change. Acting to prevent the climate crisis will take place in the context of other parallel social crises.
Crisis and Pressure from Below
The system we live under is in a deep crisis that creates more poverty, war, and suffering. The economic crisis that started in 2008 illustrated how capitalism solves its own failures by further dispossessing and punishing the majority. Governments around the world bailed out the banks that had caused international havoc, and passed the burden onto the poorest. The food crisis of 2008 that caused famine and riots in the Global South showed how our food system is broken, monopolized by corporations that maximize their profits through export-led mono-crop agriculture, land grabbing, agro-fuel production, and speculation on basic staple foods.
The enrichment of an elite that dictates its rules over the whole world repeatedly sparks revolt and rebellion. The 2011 wave of Arab uprisings inspired billions around the world, spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to the Indignados in Spain and Greece, to the student mobilizations in Chile, to the Occupy movement against the one percent, and the revolts in Turkey, Brazil, and beyond. Each struggle is different and context-specific. But all were challenging the power of the elite and the violence of the neoliberal world.
This is the context of dealing with climate change. The climate crisis is the epitome of capitalist and imperialist exploitation of people and the planet. Leaving the response to climate change to the bankrupt elite means that we will not survive. The struggle for climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities most affected, and be geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy, a clean and safe environment that remains for the future, and that sits in harmony with the revolutionary demands of national sovereignty, bread, freedom, and social justice.
The scale of the crisis means that we need a radical departure from existing authoritarian and neoliberal power structures. The urgency makes it appear as if we do not have time to change the system—but relying on those that rule will take us two steps back with every step forward. Instead, we need to look to the social movements and frontline communities that are resisting, and build democratic pathways to survival in a warmer world.
This will be the defining global struggle of the twenty-first century.
[Excerpted from The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice, edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Mika Minio-Paluello, by permission of the editors. Translation from Arabic to English by the authors. For more information, or to download this book, click here.]