William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Deforestation and desertification, archenemies of efforts to maintain forests as sinks for greenhouse gas emissions, are marching on unabated in Africa, where 90 percent of forests were lost in West Africa over the last century alone. Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, whose work to restore some of Kenya’s decimated forests predates the connections made by the climate science community between deforestation and climate change, wrote:

Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its lifesupport system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own . . . This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life. . . .

Maathai’s call for an African response, however, was qualified by the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility.” She bemoaned the fact that Africa which had “hardly contributed to climate change”—yet would suffer the gravest impacts of climate change, and called for African leaders to engage in global decision-making on how to address the crisis. Yet the last two decades of sluggish climate negotiations demonstrate that global legalism places an unwarranted amount of faith on global solutions to global problems. We live in a world where the bulk of climate policy is being made far away from the UN process—at regional, national, provincial, and local levels of governance.4 It is these localized responses, in the aggregate,that have the potential to significantly impact global climate change. But in the absence of laws, these local or regional responses are driven by some moral code that justifies valuing the environment. This Article begins a process for articulating a regional environmental ethic to catapult, strengthen, and give teeth to Africa’s own response to its role in the climate crisis: an ethic from within on which to base stronger policies against deforestation, land degradation, and desertification. Thinking through the moral grounds for ethical action holds the key to the fundamental shift necessary to address the most dominant of Africa’s environmental problems, and galvanize these bottom-up responses to the global crisis of our time.