Vidal’s voyage to Durban

by Bryan Walker on November 28, 2011

How better to journey to the climate conference at Durban than through the African countries along the way which are already grappling with climate change? That’s the route John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, has been following over the past ten days and reporting on in a series of articles.

He started in Egypt. The impacts of climate change are difficult to disentangle from natural coastal processes and the effects of human activities on the flow of the Nile, but an inexorably rising sea level and the increasing intensity of storms threaten increased salination of groundwater and soil as well as inundation. Extreme heat will also take its toll on city life.

Sudan was next. A Sudanese researcher reports drought and extreme flooding becoming more frequent, temperatures rising in winter, extreme – good and bad – years now more common and rainfall patterns changing. If temperatures continue to rise, as is predicted over the next 50 years, Sudan can expect more desertification, and more tension between traditionally hostile groups. The country is not well placed to adapt to changes in climate, stressed as it is by endemic poverty, ecosystem degradation, complex conflicts and limited access to markets, infrastructure and technology. In South Sudan changes in rainfall patterns threaten crops and livestock.

In Uganda Vidal visited a coffee-growing village.

 One by one, the farmers, who mostly cultivate two acres of land each, tell us what they have observed in their lifetimes. “The springs are drying up”; “we find we can only plant crops twice'; “the coffee has started behaving differently; it flowers even as it fruits”; “we have more diseases”; “we have lost 20% of our income”; “there is less water from the mountain”.

The villagers say they have no scientific understanding of why it is hotter and there is less rain, but they instinctively believe it’s because there are fewer trees, and argue that they should plant more. And they had something to say to the negotiators at Durban:

“We must start with mitigation. Our message to the world leaders and the countries meeting in South Africa is to talk less and act more”, says Januario Kamalha, a villager.

Vidal moved on to Kenya where he reports the ambitious plans to continue the legacy of Wangari Maathai in massive tree-planting projects and to build one of Africa’s biggest wind farms near Lake Turkana. He includes an extract from the environment department’s official assessment of what has happened in the past 20-30 years:

“Rainfalls have become irregular and unpredictable, when it rains [the] downpour is more intense, extreme and harsh weather is now the norm. Since the 1960s both minimum (night time) and maximum (daytime) temperatures have been warming. Rainfall has increased variability year to year, there is a general decline in the main rainfall season and drought in the long rains season is more frequent and prolonged. On the other hand, there are more rains during September to February. This suggests that the short rains are expanding into what is normally the hot and dry period of January and February.”

An official in the environment department sums it up:

“We are vastly affected by climate change. The trends are now extreme. We are seeing adverse effects everywhere. When no crops grow, we have to seek aid. Our economy is greatly affected, so adaptation is our priority.”

In South Africa Vidal visited Ocean View near Capetown, where 75 fisherwomen each own a small 5 metre-long boat and go one mile out in the giant Atlantic swells two or three times a week to catch rock lobsters. They know that fish stocks are affected adversely by a variety of factors, including poaching and over-fishing, but they are convinced that climate change now plays a part.

“We the fisher people know what we see, and we can see changes. The lobsters are hibernating for longer, and their shells are softer and more fragile than they were. Their breeding cycles are being disrupted. The sea temperature is definitely warmer than it used to be. The seas are much rougher these days and people are scared to go out. The wind comes up bigger than before. The weather patterns seem to have changed too.”

Vidal sums his journey up in a final article.

From north to south the broad observations are remarkably similar. More floods, droughts, storms and changing seasons are being experienced: the heatwaves are getting longer and more frequent; the storms more intense; the nighttime temperatures higher; the farmers see new diseases and pests; and the growing seasons appear disrupted. On top of that, the marginal areas are turning to desert and cities are becoming unbearably hot. The peer-reviewed science is still sketchy, but it’s the best there is in a continent starved of research funds and it is consistent with the latest models done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But as the evidence continues to mount and the pain begins to be experienced in some of the poorer parts of the world there is little sign that the rich countries are preparing to tackle the issue seriously  at Durban or anywhere else:

… some leaders of the rich and big-emitting countries have lost interest and political momentum and want to consign the talks, like those on world trade, to a never-ending, never-achieving, low-grade, low-profile discussion to take place in backrooms without anyone listening or caring much. They may profess concern, but there is little evidence they want to act.

The 175 or more developing countries are not taking this submissively.

[They are] talking more as one, and the great illusion trick of the rich world is wearing thin. What has changed, they ask? The science of climate change is firmer than it ever was. A 2C-4C temperature rise still means that Africa fries and the polar bears die out, that Bangladesh and Egypt drown, the droughts in Latin America and Ethiopia continue to worsen, and the poorest communities and small-island states, who have the least resources to adapt, will be hurt the hardest.

Vidal is hardly optimistic. He ends with the comment that convincing the US to stop playing with the lives of the poorest or China to brake their economic rise may be too much to expect. Nevertheless he’s right to put his journalism at the service of those who are already discovering in their vulnerable lives what climate change means. Maybe the rich world will prove impervious to moral appeal. But the advocacy must continue and be reiterated again and again so that at least we cannot claim ignorance of the human effects of ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions. I often think how repetitive I feel my own writing about climate change has become as the years go by and little appears to change, at least at the political level. But there’s no escape from that repetition. The twin themes of the reality of the science and the injurious human impacts of climate change must go on being sounded until the world wakes up to what we are doing to ourselves.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

bennydale November 29, 2011 at 7:02 am

Canada’s pulling out of Kyoto.

Thought you’d like to know.

Thomas November 29, 2011 at 2:50 pm

For the last time Mr. Benny: Facts are not decided by political posturing. AGW will not go away to be the “Front Page Issue” of our time just because Canada considering to abandon Kyoto.
The harsh realities of what will become of this Earth unless we act NOW are not beholden to any of the noise of stupor coming from the hollow echo chambers of the right wing “conservative” nonsense generators….

bill November 29, 2011 at 6:20 pm

All that this confirms is that the Harper Govt. is monumentally Stupid – we already knew that.

(Anyone who’d see John Howard as a role model…)

Government of the Scientifically Illiterate, by the Scientifically Illiterate, for the Scientifically Illiterate. Pity we don’t have a spare planet parked somewhere in reserve!

bennydale November 29, 2011 at 7:56 am
George November 29, 2011 at 9:22 am

Now, Dear Benny, that’s the sort of thing that you’d like to know. Just as a reminder of why we’re doing this, check out co2now.

George November 29, 2011 at 6:22 pm

The Lancet has an editorial on Durban. Doctors understand what’s going on — being familiar with scientific method, and the abuse of science by vested interests, and standing far enough outside the mainstream to be able to see this.
http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2811%2961793-5/fulltext

bennydale November 29, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Predictions then, for a way forward after Durban ?

George November 29, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Good question — the UN Environment Program report Bridging the Emissions Gap shows how it can be done. Obviously what’s needed is public awareness and willpower. Having been something of a sceptic in your time, bennydale, you would be a great advocate if you got behind this.

Gareth November 29, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I think we should wait for the outcome of meeting before speculating on what might follow.

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