How the changing climate is changing lives

Marginalised communities attending a United Nations conference on climate change being held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, have given accounts of how their lives are being altered for the worse — something they blame on climate change.

”We are not hunting as before. We are not even fishing as we used to before, because there are no fish and water is drying from the rivers and lakes. We are almost being left as climate refugees,” Anna Pinto, an Indian delegate, told journalists.

According to Hussein Abdullahi, from a pastoralist community in north-eastern Kenya, weather patterns in this region have become unpredictable, making traditional knowledge of climatic matters useless.

”In olden days, pastoralists depended on traditional knowledge to predict the weather. As a pastoralist, I never required a meteorologist to tell me when the rains would come,” he said.

”Traditionally, the frogs would tell me something … We had birds which would sing, and from their singing we would know that rains were near; and we would prepare pasture for our animals in good time so that the animals would not succumb to the drought,” Abdullahi added.

”But all this is history, and now we have to rely on meteorologists and astrologists; and even whatever they tell us is not what happens.”

He said that changing weather patterns, resulting in periods of intense drought, have forced pastoralists to abandon their traditional pursuit of cattle herding and migrate to towns. Many now depend on food aid for survival, while some have even lost their lives to drought.

As few services are provided in northern Kenya, residents have to walk for days to get to a water point. Fifty percent of the livestock there has died as a result of the drought that has gripped the region in recent years, according to UN figures.

Conference

The two-week conference (November 6 to 17), which seeks to chart ways of mitigating the effects of climate change, has attracted close to 6 000 delegates from around the world.

Poor nations that lack the resources to cope with climate change are expected to be hardest hit by shifting weather patterns. In addition to prolonged drought, changes in climate are said to be prompting floods and excessively high temperatures, among others, which can lead to water and food insecurity.

A UN report released at the start of the meeting reveals that the number of people killed and affected by climate-related disasters in Africa between 1993 and 2002 stands at more than 136-million.

The Nairobi gathering is the 12th conference of the 189 countries that have signed the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Only 165 have ratified the treaty’s Kyoto Protocol, which calls on industrialised nations to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

These gases are released into the atmosphere in part by the burning of fossil fuels. They absorb the sun’s energy and so prevent it from radiating back into space after it has reached the surface of the Earth. Many scientists argue that increased concentrations of greenhouse emissions are leading to a rise in the Earth’s temperature — and climate change.

The protocol was signed in 1997 in the Japanese city of Kyoto, and requires 35 industrialised nations to reduce their combined emissions to 5% below 1990 levels, by 2012.

The United States, which emits the most greenhouse gases (it accounts for 25% of the emissions by industrialised countries) has not yet ratified the protocol. Although the document was signed during former president Bill Clinton’s term in office — with a view to attaining a 7% reduction in emissions — it was rejected by President George Bush’s administration, which claimed it would harm the US economy.

Commitment

”We need … commitment [on climate change] by all countries, including the US,” Jukka Ousukainen, a senior officer in the Finnish government, told Inter Press Service at the meeting. Finland currently holds the presidency of the European Union, which is responsible for 14% of greenhouse-gas emissions in the industrialised world.

”The EU alone cannot solve this climatic problem. Even if we phase out all our emissions, we will not phase out climate change,” Ousukainen added.

However, a senior US official who spoke on the sidelines of the conference noted that his country is supportive of reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions through the use of cleaner technologies — as this will not undermine industry and lead to job cuts.

A handful of countries that support the US position have also thrown their weight behind cleaner technologies, and are encouraging developing countries to plant more trees to absorb excess carbon dioxide.

This strategy has the support of well-known Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, who has joined the UN Environment Programme in a campaign to plant a billion trees by 2007. The initiative was launched on November 8.

”We know the data; we know the signs of climate change. We can tell people of the drought, floods and so on. But the big question is: What do we do about it? At least we can mitigate by planting trees. Anybody can dig a hole, put a tree in the hole and water it to make sure that it survives,” she told journalists in Nairobi.

At present, many of Africa’s poor use trees as a source of energy and income, and may be more inclined to harvest than plant them.

But, Maathai still believes the drive to plant trees is viable: ”We can invest in solar energy [and] hydro power as options so that poor people do not have to cut down trees for fuel.” — IPS

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Joyce Mulama
Guest Author

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