Four years ago, the United Nations published a controversial report predicting that, by 2030, the world could be on the brink of a “climate apartheid.” We’d know we’d arrived at such a scenario, said Philip Alston, then-U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, when “the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
Dec. 5 will mark the 10th anniversary of my grandfather Nelson Mandela’s passing, but the fight against apartheid that Madiba led is far from over.
Seven years ahead of schedule and at the start of the United Nations’ COP28 climate summit, which is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates in Dubai, I believe that the climate apartheid the U.N. predicted is already here. Half the global population lives on less than $6.85 a day. That half has the smallest carbon footprint on our planet but is the most climate-vulnerable.
Dec. 5 will mark the 10th anniversary of my grandfather Nelson Mandela’s passing, but when the climate status quo is being defended with the same type of racist assumptions and attitudes my grandfather struggled against, it becomes clear that the fight against apartheid that Madiba led is far from over.
This suffering is the direct consequence of an unequal global political and economic structure, whose laws and regulations systematically discriminate against this other half, the vast majority of whom are people of color in the Global South.
My grandfather fought in South Africa to dismantle an entrenched system based on racism and subjugation that destroyed the lives of millions of Black South Africans and humiliated them daily. Despite his victory in my home country, apartheid has been exported into the heart of the entire global system.
In apartheid South Africa, power, wealth and opportunity exclusively belonged to white South Africans. Similarly, the most egregious polluters in the Global North reap the benefits, while those in the Global South are forced to shoulder the most destructive consequences of rising temperatures.
As world leaders convene for COP28, skepticism about it being held in Dubai is understandable. Critical scrutiny of the UAE hosting the U.N. climate summit is welcome. But it must not come at the expense of balance. I fear we’re becoming distracted by pointing fingers of blame, rather than recognizing our shared responsibility.
Media reports have claimed the COP28 presidency used ministerial climate talks to broker deals to expand global fossil fuel production, based on background notes prepared for the meetings. These raise key concerns about transparency and propriety. But the reports fail to identify a single new fossil fuel project, or indeed any concrete plans to expand existing ones. Even the mention of potential LNG projects has context. Gas is recognized by the International Energy Agency as a bridge fuel to disrupt oil and coal, for instance, with far lower emissions.
While many are legitimately concerned that the UAE is an oil producer, the truth is that so are 97 other countries in the world. That includes the United States, which, between 2018 and 2022, was the world’s top producer of crude oil. Nearly half of the 98 oil-producing countries in the world are in developing nations, and 16 are in Africa.
Critical scrutiny of the UAE hosting the UN climate summit is welcome. But it must not come at the expense of balance.
Many of my fellow climate activists concerned about the UAE hosting this climate conference have forgotten that the biggest fossil fuel expansion plans are being led by the United States, Canada, Russia, Iran, China and Brazil. The UAE is seventh on that list. European banks have invested $1.3 trillion into fossil fuels since 2015 (including $130.5 billion in 2022 alone), despite the EU saying it wants a fossil fuel phase-out. Banks in the U.S., Canada and Japan account for the bulk of global fossil fuel financing.
For oil-producing nations in Africa, Western demands for a fossil fuel phase-out seem not only hypocritical — but apocalyptic. For example, the UAE has only recently attained prosperity by developing its oil and gas industry. African nations want to know why they can’t do the same. The feeling is that, having built up huge stores of wealth after centuries of carbon pollution, the West is now saying to the rest of the world, how dare you follow our footsteps?
While it is hypocritical for the West to take such a position, for African nations to avoid further climate catastrophe, we must not attempt to do what the West has done. We need only look at what’s happened on our continent. Since the start of the year, over 36 million people in the Horn of Africa have been affected by drought and famine, and extreme weather, including floods and cyclones, has been blamed for at least 15,700 deaths across the African continent.
Instead of demanding the right to embark upon the same destructive path the West has put us on, we must instead follow Madiba’s footsteps to forge a consensus on climate action. His path was always to keep the door open and engage with all parties to effect change. We can all point fingers of blame. But we cannot let blaming one another compromise our chances of reaching a global climate deal.
While it is hypocritical for the West to take such a position, for African nations to avoid further climate catastrophe, we must not attempt to do what the West has done.
Developing nations in Africa and across the Global South desperately need the world to align around what the COP28 presidency has proposed, however imperfectly: tripling renewable energy, reducing global fossil fuels and providing the financing the world’s most vulnerable countries need to address climate change. This is the only way we can undo an unfolding global climate apartheid.
In this fight, much like my grandfather’s generation’s fight, we cannot wait for perfect opportunities. If COP28 fails, millions of people will be forced into destitution or be forced to take perilous migration routes away from disaster zones next year.
My grandfather understood that fighting to end apartheid in South Africa was a fight for everyone who was rendered invisible and without a voice. Despite his victories, when he died, his fight against apartheid remained unfinished. A worsening climate that’s threatening the lives and livelihoods of the very people is a reminder that, in many ways, his fight was just beginning.
Ndileka Mandela is a writer, social activist, and the head of one of South Africa’s most prominent rural upliftment organizations, the Thembekile Mandela Foundation, which works around education, health, youth and women’s development in rural villages. She is one of South Africa’s best-known feminists and the eldest grandchild of Nelson Mandela. She is on the board of several NGOs and philanthropic organizations and is an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement, using her platform to combat stigma surrounding sexual violence.