As the climate negotiations continue in Copenhagen – although last time I looked, they seemed to have stalled over the usual developing world-developed world impasse – it’s interesting to see the different ways that climate change is being politicized. In the run-up to negotiations in the West, for example, there was a resurgence of climate denial, particularly in the most popular media and newspapers. This, at a time when all the major political players are for the first time in agreement that the world is warming owing to anthropogenic emissions.
As I have travelled through East Africa over the past few months – during one of the region’s worst drought-induced famine in living memory – I have been surprised at the number of apparently climate change-aware people I have met. Over the past year, through South Asia and Southeast Asia, I have talked to hundreds of local community leaders, farmers and other individuals all the way to scientists and meteorologists, and whenever they tell me of a new trend in weather pattern or the changing yields, erratic rains, melting glaciers, rising seas, etc, I always ask their opinion on the cause. I have received a variety of responses, including that it’s God’s will, that it’s a punishment, that it is bad luck, that it’s always been like this and their grandparents were wrong, and sometimes, ‘global warming’.
In Africa, though, I unfailingly get the response: ‘climate change’. This is given to me as a reason for the rain having not yet stopped (the rainy season is supposed to have ended 3 weeks ago), to the reason for the famine and drought. It is the reason for low yields and the reason for the variety of crop and human diseases from malaria to leaf-wilt in ground nuts. It is the reason for the high fruit prices at the moment and for the sugar crisis earlier this year. The newspapers in the region also lead heavily with climate change catastrophes and with editorials demanding the West does more.
Climate change has always been a political issue, of course. While it’s wonderful that so many Africans are aware of climate change, I am very uneasy about this blanket labelling of every occurrence as being caused by climate change. Scientifically, it’s plain wrong. It’s impossible to attribute single events to climate change – the models do predict that droughts will become longer and more severe in the region, and that will increase the risk of famine, but we cannot say that this current famine is 100% the result of climate change. My biggest problem with this labelling is that it provides the governments of the region a wonderful get-out clause for their poor governance. How much easier it is to blame a Western-induced climate change for a famine, than address the decades of conflict, mismanagement of resources, corruption, lack of infrastructure and backward agriculture.
Climate change is perhaps the most serious problem ever to affect the poor world. But people will not die solely because of changes in the weather. They will die because of inequalities, poor governance, lack of adaptation and flexibility and out of control populations.