Climate change will heat up West Africa's religious conflicts -- and a whole lot more

Africa presents a host of formidable problems that limit quality coverage by Western -- and in particular, American -- news outlets. That means there's a gaping hole in the information needed to understand in significant depth Africa's huge role in global social changes and conflicts.

Some of the problems are physical; the continent's colossal size and relatively poor transportation and communications infrastructures, for example.

But some are attitudinal. Press freedoms overall are more limited in Africa in line with the continent's generally less than stellar political profile

Close to home, Americans also have been shown, repeatedly, to favor domestic over international news. And those of us who do pay closer attention to foreign stories tend to prefer those originating in nations with which we have greater historic, geographic and cultural affinity, or substantial national involvement -- which is to say, Europe, the Middle East and, increasingly, Latin America.

What coverage there is of Africa tends to concentrate on the catastrophic -- civil war, terrorism, Christian-Muslim religious conflict, poverty, disease, government corruption and African migrants desperately trying to flee their homelands for Europe.

Here's a sampling of journalistic, think tank and academic pieces that address why Africa coverage is below par. There's a lot here, so read them at your leisure. Click here, and here. And here or, finally, here.

Now, let's narrow our scope to just one region, Africa's sub-Saharan west. And let's tackle just one problem, how climate change is disrupting several coastal nations and how this is likely to further inflame Christian-Muslim conflicts.

Not to mention poverty, famine, social stability, emigration, and how journalists might shape their future coverage. It's all too much for a single post.

I'll start with this new offering from the Washington Post-owned magazine Foreign Policy. The journal twinned it, at least online, with this photo essay.

Here's a taste of the main story:

Fuvemeh is one of thousands of communities along the western coast of sub-Saharan Africa, stretching more than 4,000 miles from Mauritania to Cameroon, at risk of being washed away. Spurred by global warming, rising sea levels are causing massive erosion -- in some places eating away more than 100 feet of land in a single year. Sea levels around the world are expected to rise by more than two-and-a-half feet by the end of the century, but they are expected to rise faster than the global average in West Africa, according to the West African Economic and Monetary Union. In a region where 31 percent of population lives along the coastline, generating 56 percent of total GDP, according to the World Bank, this is a potentially catastrophic problem.
“In West Africa, infrastructure and economic activities are centered along the coastal region, so as sea levels continue to rise, it threatens our very existence and source of income,” says Kwasi Appeaning Addo, a professor in the University of Ghana’s department of marine and fisheries sciences. “We are sitting on a time bomb.”

When time bombs explode in this part of Africa, where Christianity and Islam rub up against each other, often uncomfortably (think Nigeria), inter-religious conflict often erupts. Since Christian-Muslim conflict is an aspect of African instability that often attracts American attention, will this mean an increase in American media coverage?

However, what we journalists superficially call religious conflict in West Africa is generally far more complex. In West Africa, tribal and ethnic divisions, disputes between farmers and pastoralists, and widespread political and economic greed and corruption are also part of the mix.

Religion is just one identity marker among many. Though for American and other Western news operations lacking a solid grasp of Africa's historical and social complexities, its one that's more easily relatable because it fits the audiences' highly simplified expectations.

Call it what you will. Regardless, all these triggers will be exacerbated by climate change's ongoing undermining of local social and economic safety nets and understandings.

The direct link between climate change and religious strife may not be readily apparent. As I said, religion's just part of the mix. But, journalists, it is part of the mix.

But here's a couple of pieces that argue, at least in part, for a casual link. Here's one from Mother Jones, and here's a New York Times "Room for Debate" commentary section discussion.

Up for one more? Check out this from Public Radio International. It explains European colonialism's part in Africa's religious conflicts, with the focus on Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims were forced into an unwise political arraignment because it served their British overlords.

The PRI story underscores for me how much of history can, though generally in hindsight, be viewed as a string of self-serving human actions that produced unanticipated (or overlooked) negative consequences.

That's true in the case of religious conflict in Nigeria and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan West Africa. Just as it also seems to me to be true in the case of West Africa's receding coastline resulting from human-exacerbated climate change.

(We can argue, if you like, over precisely what percentage of climate change is natural and precisely what percentage is human-caused. But I believe the scientific consensus that human actions have contributed, and continue to contribute, mightily to climate change.)

Ironically, the decisions that led to climate changes were made by non-Africans living materially far better lives than do the preponderance of humans living in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Cameroon and other West African coastal nations.

That mirrors the decisions made about drawing West Africa's national borders -- decisions made by European colonial powers that in hindsight appear to have largely ignored religion, tribal ethnicity and other key local social and political realities.

If only humanity had been blessed with a bit more foresight. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy