Q&A: Exploring ethnic dynamics and climate change in Africa

Evan Lieberman is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT, and is also director of the Center for International Studies. During a semester-long sabbatical, he’s currently based at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

In this Q&A, Lieberman discusses several climate-related research projects he’s pursuing in South Africa and surrounding countries. This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.

Q: South Africa is a nation whose political and economic development you have long studied and written about. Do you see this visit as an extension of the kind of research you have been pursuing, or a departure from it?

A: Much of my previous work has been animated by the question of understanding the causes and consequences of group-based disparities, whether due to AIDS or Covid. These are problems that know no geographic boundaries, and where ethnic and racial minorities are often hardest hit. Climate change is an analogous problem, with these minority populations living in places where they are most vulnerable, in heat islands in cities, and in coastal areas where they are not protected. The reality is they might get hit much harder by longer-term trends and immediate shocks.

In one line of research, I seek to understand how people in different African countries, in different ethnic groups, perceive the problems of climate change and their governments’ response to it. There are ethnic divisions of labor in terms of what people do — whether they are farmers or pastoralists, or live in cities. So some ethnic groups are simply more affected by drought or extreme weather than others, and this can be a basis for conflict, especially when competing for often limited government resources.

In this area, just like in my previous research, learning what shapes ordinary citizen perspectives is really important, because these views affect people’s everyday practices, and the extent to which they support certain kinds of policies and investments their government makes in response to climate-related challenges. But I will also try to learn more about the perspectives of policymakers and various development partners who seek to balance climate-related challenges against a host of other problems and priorities.

Q: You recently published “Until We Have Won Our Liberty,” which examines the difficult transition of South Africa from apartheid to a democratic government, scrutinizing in particular whether the quality of life for citizens has improved in terms of housing, employment, discrimination, and ethnic conflicts. How do climate change-linked issues fit into your scholarship?

A: I never saw myself as a climate researcher, but a number of years ago, heavily influenced by what I was learning at MIT, I began to recognize more and more how important the issue of climate change is. And I realized there were lots of ways in which the climate problem resonated with other kinds of problems I had tackled in earlier parts of my work.

There was once a time when climate and the environment was the purview primarily of white progressives: the “tree huggers.” And that’s really changed in recent decades as it has become evident that the people who’ve been most affected by the climate emergency are ethnic and racial minorities. We saw with Hurricane Katrina and other places [that] if you are Black, you’re more likely to live in a vulnerable area and to just generally experience more environmental harms, from pollution and emissions, leaving these communities much less resilient than white communities. Government has largely not addressed this inequity. When you look at American survey data in terms of who’s concerned about climate change, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans are more unified in their worries than are white Americans.

There are analogous problems in Africa, my career research focus. Governments there have long responded in different ways to different ethnic groups. The research I am starting looks at the extent to which there are disparities in how governments try to solve climate-related challenges.

Q: It’s difficult enough in the United States taking the measure of different groups’ perceptions of the impact of climate change and government’s effectiveness in contending with it. How do you go about this in Africa?

A: Surprisingly, there’s only been a little bit of work done so far on how ordinary African citizens, who are ostensibly being hit the hardest in the world by the climate emergency, are thinking about this problem. Climate change has not been politicized there in a very big way. In fact, only 50 percent of Africans in one poll had heard of the term.

In one of my new projects, with political science faculty colleague Devin Caughey and political science doctoral student Preston Johnston, we are analyzing social and climate survey data [generated by the Afrobarometer research network] from over 30 African countries to understand within and across countries the ways in which ethnic identities structure people’s perception of the climate crisis, and their beliefs in what government ought to be doing. In largely agricultural African societies, people routinely experience drought, extreme rain, and heat. They also lack the infrastructure that can shield them from the intense variability of weather patterns. But we’re adding a lens, which is looking at sources of inequality, especially ethnic differences.

I will also be investigating specific sectors. Africa is a continent where in most places people cannot take for granted universal, piped access to clean water. In Cape Town, several years ago, the combination of failure to replace infrastructure and lack of rain caused such extreme conditions that one of the world’s most important cities almost ran out of water.

While these studies are in progress, it is clear that in many countries, there are substantively large differences in perceptions of the severity of climate change, and attitudes about who should be doing what, and who’s capable of doing what. In several countries, both perceptions and policy preferences are differentiated along ethnic lines, more so than with respect to generational or class differences within societies.

This is interesting as a phenomenon, but substantively, I think it’s important in that it may provide the basis for how politicians and government actors decide to move on allocating resources and implementing climate-protection policies. We see this kind of political calculation in the U.S. and we shouldn’t be surprised that it happens in Africa as well.

That’s ultimately one of the challenges from the perch of MIT, where we’re really interested in understanding climate change, and creating technological tools and policies for mitigating the problem or adapting to it. The reality is frustrating. The political world — those who make decisions about whether to acknowledge the problem and whether to implement resources in the best technical way — are playing a whole other game. That game is about rewarding key supporters and being reelected.

Q: So how do you go from measuring perceptions and beliefs among citizens about climate change and government responsiveness to those problems, to policies and actions that might actually reduce disparities in the way climate-vulnerable African groups receive support?

A: Some of the work I have been doing involves understanding what local and national governments across Africa are actually doing to address these problems. We will have to drill down into government budgets to determine the actual resources devoted to addressing a challenge, what sorts of practices the government follows, and the political ramifications for governments that act aggressively versus those that don’t. With the Cape Town water crisis, for example, the government dramatically changed residents’ water usage through naming and shaming, and transformed institutional practices of water collection. They made it through a major drought by using much less water, and doing it with greater energy efficiency. Through the government’s strong policy and implementation, and citizens’ active responses, an entire city, with all its disparate groups, gained resilience. Maybe we can highlight creative solutions to major climate-related problems and use them as prods to push more effective policies and solutions in other places.

In the MIT Global Diversity Lab, along with political science faculty colleague Volha Charnysh, political science doctoral student Jared Kalow, and Institute for Data, Systems and Society doctoral student Erin Walk, we are exploring American perspectives on climate-related foreign aid, asking survey respondents whether the U.S. should be giving more to people in the global South who didn’t cause the problems of climate change but have to suffer the externalities. We are particularly interested in whether people’s desire to help vulnerable communities rests on the racial or national identity of those communities.

From my new seat as director of the Center for International Studies (CIS), I hope to do more and more to connect social science findings to relevant policymakers, whether in the U.S. or in other places. CIS is making climate one of our thematic priority areas, directing hundreds of thousands of dollars for MIT faculty to spark climate collaborations with researchers worldwide through the Global Seed Fund program. 

COP 28 (the U.N. Climate Change Conference), which I attended in December in Dubai, really drove home the importance of people coming together from around the world to exchange ideas and form networks. It was unbelievably large, with 85,000 people. But so many of us shared the belief that we are not doing enough. We need enforceable global solutions and innovation. We need ways of financing. We need to provide opportunities for journalists to broadcast the importance of this problem. And we need to understand the incentives that different actors have and what sorts of messages and strategies will resonate with them, and inspire those who have resources to be more generous.