The Human Face of Climate Change

A clever new gadget was described in a newspaper a few weeks ago. It pulls water out of the atmosphere and delivers you a glass of clean, chilled H2O. It’s wonderful what technology can offer for the wealthy.

But there is no such luck for millions of Africans who face disruption to the rainfall on which their crops, livestock, and families depend. For them, climate change can be expected to bring more erratic and uncertain storms, with no guarantee of water in the well, bucket, and field.

Water lies at the heart of life, whether for drinking and washing, irrigating crops, watering cattle, or generating power. Those of us who live with wet weather tend to curse it, but if we faced week after week of blistering sun with no prospect of clouds in sight, we would be in real trouble. Nearly a billion people on the planet manage their lives with serious water shortages, and their circumstances are only likely to worsen with climate change and rapid urbanization.

Governments are currently gathered in Poznan, Poland, to reach agreement on how to address the major challenges that stem from global warming. We need a deal by the end of 2009 in order to institute more ambitious cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. But the main dealmakers are those nations with the highest emissions, since they are the ones with something to trade. Most African countries have no voice or bargaining power in the climate change talks and must accept whatever deal is made. Yet many of the highest costs of adapting to changing weather patterns will fall on them.

Where is the justice in this? How can it be right that those least responsible for global warming will be the worst hit and the least able to affect the global deal that we need?

The last few years have shown how everything is interconnected, wherever you are on this planet. Biofuel targets set in the European Union, the United States, and China generate a land grab in Mozambique, Colombia, and Cambodia. Hot money moves out of the sub-prime market into food and other commodities, and suddenly poor city dwellers in the Philippines, Peru, and Cote d‘Ivoire are faced with terrible hunger.

Today, no one is immune from climate change. The expectation that life will continue along familiar lines is being overtaken by anxiety that the shifts underway will mean huge shocks and difficult adjustments in many parts of the world. Experts predict that parts of Southern Africa will suffer hotter, drier weather patterns, as will the northern Maghreb region.

Harvests may halve and rivers on which irrigation and hydropower depend may become a mere trickle. On the other hand, too much rainfall can be as bad as too little, especially when it comes out of season. Parts of East and West Africa are expected to get wetter, with rain falling in heavy, intense storms that not only bring greater risks of erosion, flooding, and crop damage, but also leave people more exposed to malaria and cattle herds to decimation by outbreaks of diseases like Rift Valley fever.

Sometimes the climate change debate looks very complicated – people risk drowning in an acronym soup, technical fixes proliferate, and experts argue about the right price of carbon and appropriate discount rates. Yet, within the complexity, there is a very simple truth: for a decade or more, we have known that it was risky to go on emitting greenhouse gases, yet we have utterly failed to take credible steps to stop.

We have sidestepped our duties both to our descendants and to the large number of people alive here and now in other parts of the world who are suffering the consequences of our myopia.

Western governments are ready to argue with the Chinese and Indians about whether and when the burden of cuts will be spread to emerging economies, but are silent on the much bigger injustice wrought on the world’s poorest people. The human right to water is just one of the rights at risk in a climate-constrained world.

Are we happy to live in a world where the rich can rely on ever more clever technical tricks, while we ignore the right of poor countries and communities to the basic requirements of survival?