Copenhagen: How climate change will shape these lives

They are the citizens of tomorrow and each faces a grim and uncertain future. Born on four different continents within the last month, these five babies will have their futures determined over the next 12 days when world leaders, scientists and campaigners gather in Copenhagen to decide how humanity should tackle global warming.

If successful, the meeting will devise and agree a formula that will allow nations to limit their output of greenhouse gases, the cause of global warming. Children today can then look to the future with some hope. But if the Copenhagen summit fails, these young people face times of drought, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, spreading deserts, food shortages, loss of biodiversity and climatic mayhem.

Most meteorologists predict that temperatures across the globe will rise between 1,1&deg:C and 6,4&deg:C by the end of the century, with the majority choosing the higher end of this spectrum as the most likely outcome. Such an increase would bring widespread chaos to the planet and dwarf the climate changes that have begun to make their mark. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels and disrupted rainfall patterns are already bringing hardship to the world as we can see from these reports, gathered by the charity Cafod.

Over the next two weeks, negotiators will have to tackle these problems, which are measured on a scale that has never previously been experienced. Fixing the climate is not going to be easy. Yet as these stories — from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe — make clear, failure will have dreadful consequences.

‘The heat has risen and the rains are little’

Brazil: Elisa’s daughter
She still has no name, but this little girl, born last month, has become a figure of hope for the Macuxi people of Brazil — and for politicians and campaigners trying to save indigenous peoples from the worst effects of climate change.

Her mother, Elisa da Silva (33) comes from Barro, in north Roraima, close to the border with Venezuela. The area has been the focus of fierce conflict between the Macuxi and farmers who want to turn the region’s marshy areas into rice plantations. This year the country’s supreme court ruled in favour of the Macuxi, ending a fight that has lasted more than 30 years.

Elisa had hoped for a boy. Hence the delay in naming her daughter. The birth has great significance, however. For the first time, the children of the Macuxi can be sure that their homeland will remain.

“What I hope for is that my daughter lives in peace,” says Elisa. During her pregnancy, the village was besieged by federal troops sent to end the violence between rice farmers and local people. Ten Macuxi people suffered gunshot wounds.

Roraima borders the Amazon region of Brazil, one of the world’s most environmentally sensitive areas, which possesses 40% of the world’s remaining tropical forests. However, the Amazon basin is suffering from serious deforestation that could result in a 25% loss of its original covering by 2020. Rising temperatures — and, in their wake, spreading savannah lands — could destroy much of the rest of the forest.

In Roraima, the climate is already changing. “The heat has increased and the rains are little,” says Elisa.

And while the future of the Macuxi people looks better now that they have been given control of their own lands, the problem of land ownership in Brazil is destined to widen. At present 7,8-million hectares of Brazilian land is used to grow sugar cane, a figure that is expected to increase to about 14-million hectares by 2020. This expansion in production will, ironically, be caused by the demand for biofuels, which have been hailed as ideal replacements for fossil fuels.

The spread of sugar cane planting will also push farmers and planters deeper into the Amazon and lead to more and more conflicts with indigenous peoples. According to experts, Brazil’s biofuel policy — under which crops are grown for fuel instead of food — has already dragged millions into poverty by triggering steep rises in food prices.

On top of these problems, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the incidence of extreme weather events and local disasters — including droughts — is destined to increase in coming years. Elisa’s baby may be assured of a home for the time being, but her long-term future is anything but assured.

‘No one has a job. It will be hard for her’

Timor-Leste: Fretelina de Oliveira
Fretelina was born three weeks ago to Joana and Armando de Oliveira in the village of Au-Hun on the north coast of Timor-Leste. She is the couple’s third child.

Life is hard. Every day Armando has to fetch water from the community’s only pump. It works for just an hour a day and hundreds queue each morning to get their water for the next 24 hours. On his return, Armando boils some to bathe Fretelina. He heads off to his job as a school guard at 7am. He is one of the more fortunate villagers of Au-Hun. Only 70 out of its 1 400 residents have jobs. At midday Armando returns home to cook lunch while Joana cleans the house and washes clothes. Despite their hardships, both are happy. Fretelina’s birth has brought them great joy, they say.

But dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. On top of the country’s poor infrastructure, its weather patterns are changing. Temperatures are rising and occasional droughts have occurred in recent years. “We feel climate change when the local well is dry and the extra heat is stopping the baby from sleeping at night,” says Joana. “We have less rain and things grow less.”

Nor is life here likely to get easier, say scientists. Their work suggests temperatures will rise between 0,88°C and 3,68°C by 2070. At the same time, rain patterns will be disrupted and droughts will be far more frequent.

Such forecasts bode ill for islanders. Timor-Leste’s farmers have already warned that water shortages are limiting their ability to feed the island’s population. A drought during the 2001-02 season saw maize production fall by 34%. More than 100 000 people required food aid as a result.

The cause of these problems is straightforward, say scientists: massive amounts of carbon dioxide are being belched into the sky from cars, factories and power plants in the West. Yet the people of Timor-Leste themselves produce little carbon dioxide. They are victims of the habits of rich westerners.

Yet things could change. Offshore, Timor-Leste possesses significant oil reserves and revenues from these could help the government fund improvements that could change the lives of Joana, Armando and Fretelina for the better — for example, by providing a proper water supply for the island and creating new jobs.

In doing so, however, the island would need to exploit its fossil fuels and start to make significant contributions to carbon emissions and the global climate crisis.

The dilemma is summed up by Joana. “We want a good future for Fretelina, so she can be an educated person and look after us when we are old. We are worried the temperatures will rise more in her life and it is already killing people in our community.

“But most of all we are worried about jobs. No one has a job. It will be hard for her and her family in the future.”

‘The baby is a blessing, but I have so little to give him’

Kenya: Olomaina Mutonka
Noomirisho Mutonka is 35 and has six children. Her youngest, a boy, Olomaina, was born on November 6. It was not an easy pregnancy, says Noomirisho, who lives near the town of Kajiado, south of Nairobi in Kenya. “Our cattle were weak because of the drought. I was helping to lift them and try to save them. I was walking four miles for water, carrying 20-litre jerry cans, all while pregnant. I [still] feel dizzy — often.”

Olomaina is smaller than the rest of her children were at birth. “I think it’s because sometimes we have been going without food. Yesterday the family ate ugali [ground maize pap] and cabbage, only one meal in the day.”

She belongs to the Masai people and owned six cattle at the start of 2009. Since then five have died, after one of the worst droughts in memory took a grip on southern Kenya. “We fear we will lose the last one because there is still not enough grass. There have been other droughts, but this one has been so long, it’s hit us worse than all the others. Three years without rain. We’ve lost our livelihood. All the cattle have died. I fear the children will be next. “

Droughts in Kenya used to occur every three years and last for one to two years. But in the past two decades their frequency and duration have increased. More than 80% of the Masai in the Magadi area of south Kenya have lost cattle as a result of more frequent droughts. By 2020 it is expected that more than 75-million people will suffer from water stress in East Africa as global warming takes its inexorable grip. The amount of land that can support the growing of crops will be halved as a result, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In addition, climate change is likely to have major implications for biodiversity in the region as well as leading to the spread of malaria. An estimated 700 000 to 2,7-million people already die from malaria each year in Africa. Evidence now suggests that the habitats of malarial mosquitoes are expanding into areas such as the Kenyan Highlands.

It is a grim picture that explains why Africa is now deemed to be one of the parts of the world most vulnerable to climate change. The prospects for many of its inhabitants are distressing.

“Olomaina means blessing in Masai,” says Noomirisho. “The baby is a blessing, but he is also a burden because I have so little to give him. Because we have lost so much, I want this one to be my last born. As for the future, that one we may leave to God, because all our animals we had are dead, so the future of our children will be worse.”

‘We don’t think we will have a tomorrow for our new child’

Bangladesh: Maria Mallik
Tayab Mallik (45) has been a rickshaw-puller in Bangladesh for more than 20 years. He earns the equivalent of $65 a month and is married to Majeda Begum. They have a son and four daughters. Their youngest, Maria, was born just a week ago and faces a life of “hardship and poverty”, says Tayab.

“Due to climate change our children do not offer us any hope or happiness. We are afraid for our children and don’t know their fate. But we know a very bad future is waiting for our Maria.”

The Mallik family live in Mostortona in Bangladesh’s Barguna district, which is suffering desperately from rising sea levels caused by global warming. High levels of salinity affect soil productivity, agriculture and vegetation. Drinking water is polluted. At the same time, the area has been devastated by increasingly vicious cyclones that bring tidal surges and destroy homesteads. More and more people are migrating to cities as land is lost to erosion.

Rising sea levels are likely to have dramatic effects in Asia, say climate scientists, as they reach one metre higher by 2080. This would inundate around 18% of Bangladesh’s land and displace more than 70-million people. In addition, a 4°C rise in temperature could result in a 30% reduction in rice production and 50% in wheat. Cholera is also expected to spread.

Climate change is taking its toll of precious habitats. In particular, sea level rises are expected to destroy the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal. These form the largest system of continuous mangrove swamps in the world and are home to hundreds of rare species, including the royal Bengal tiger. The Sundarbans, which also provide livelihoods for 3,5-million people, will be completely inundated when rising sea levels top 67cm. On the Indian side of the Sundarbans the devastating effects of climate change have seen the disappearance of two of its islands and the displacement of 6 000 people.

The prospects for life in the region are not happy, as Tayab acknowledges. “We don’t know what the family will do for a future. We don’t have hope. Living near the coast means we have many changes in the weather in Barguna and we don’t think we will have a tomorrow.”

‘Dominic’s generation must be pragmatic and compassionate’

Britain: Dominic Bassford
If there is a common thread between the lives of Catherine and Howard Bassford and those of other Britons, it has been the relative luxury of their lives over the past few decades, they say, free from worries about the environmental implications of their behaviour.

The next generation — including their one-month-old son Dominic — will have far fewer opportunities, says Catherine, an arts consultant. “Dominic may not be able to fly to see his relatives in Australia. It is strange that for one generation plane travel was very rare. Now it has become common but may become rare again.”

Sustainability will no longer be pushed to the back of people’s minds but will become part of everyday living, she insists. “He won’t have the luxury we have had to be able to do things without thinking very much about the environment. And when he has a family I imagine their choices will be even narrower. In Australia, where I am from, climate change is a real issue already with the loss of farmland. There have been many suicides. In the UK many people think a rise in temperatures might be nice, but they’re not thinking about what that could do globally. Dominic will see much more of the impacts of climate change.”

In Britain it is projected that summer temperatures will increase by between 2,7°C and 4,1°C by the 2080s. On its own, this rise has grave implications. In 2003 temperatures were just 1°C above the long-term average. Yet that August more than 2 000 people died when a heatwave struck the UK. Heatwaves are likely to have an increasingly grim impact on the population, particularly the elderly and the very young.

Then there is the issue of water. London is one of the world’s driest capitals; it possesses similar water resources per head of population to Israel. Added to projected higher temperatures and possible reduction of water flow in English rivers by 10% to 15% by 2050, it is clear the south could face major meteorological problems. Ironically, London is also at higher risk from potential flood damage than any other UK urban centre, thanks to its position on the Thames flood plain. The Thames Barrier can currently cope with the threat posed by rising sea levels, but these defences are likely to need updating at a cost of £4bn over the next 40 years.

“There are going to have to be lifestyle changes for everyone in the UK, and for Dominic these will be bigger and his choices will be more limited,” says Howard, a planning lawyer. “The response Dominic’s generation will have to make to climate change must be pragmatic and compassionate at the same time.” –

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