The Realities of Climate Change

by Jim True

This discussion is not about science. This discussion is about people.

I have had the opportunity to attend two international conferences representing the Aspen International Mountain Foundation. In 2011, I attended a Regional Meeting on Sustainable Development in African Mountain Regions in Mbale, Uganda. In May 2014, I attended the World Mountain Forum in Cuzco, Peru. In both instances, attendees at the forums had an opportunity to visit local communities and hear the concerns of the local population. This is where one learns of the realities of climate change - and the same still applies today.

Although local farmers and businessmen understand world economy and the debates over climate change, they do not consistently focus on the carbon emissions of industrial nations or whether those emissions contribute to climate change. What local farmers and businessmen focus on is how the reality of climate change affects their own livelihoods. Change can have dramatic impact on a local community, on a farmer’s ability to put food on his table or earn money for necessities.

With towns, mining ventures and farmers competing for water resources that are changing in time, duration and amount, individuals come to these international forums asking one simple question: “Of all the local, national and international agencies, who can help us when our crops fail?”

This question was posed by a gentleman at the World Mountain Forum in Cuzco. He indicated that droughts and shifting rain patterns had affected his community crop production over the last few years and that request for assistance had gone unfulfilled. There was frustration in his voice but he did not try to address the cause or assign blame. At that point neither was important to him. It did not matter to him whether the industrialize world was going to reduce carbon output over the next twenty years. What mattered to him was whether the next growing season was going to be productive and, if not, was assistance going to be available.

Earlier in the day, the Mayor of a small community outside of Cuzco made a presentation at the program. His topic was the environmental conflict that his community faced with local mining operations. He did not address the whys and wherefores of climate change. What he addressed was his community’s concern over the environmental impacts of mining operations. As the water sources diminished, the competing needs of farming and industrial development threatened the ability to provide for all of the community’s needs. The Mayor made it clear that he did not oppose mining. The potential economic benefits were significant for his community. He simply highlighted the environmental threats to his community as the competition for water increased.

In Atari, Uganda, a village on a plateau on the side of Mount Elgon, the Mayor, a very young, extremely intelligent individual, spoke proudly of his village’s efforts to improve farming techniques that helped protect and utilize the water that was flowing off of the mountain. However, the people of Sansara, in the valley below Atari, were increasingly struggling with the quantity and quality of the water that reached them. Continuing cycles of floods and droughts unknown before, and the inability of the citizens of Atari to thoroughly address water quality issues in that new cycle of floods and droughts were putting untold stress on the families in that lower community.

These are realities of climate change that we in the United States do not often see. It is not that people in this country do not see impacts. They are just not always recognized as the result of climate change. Harsher winters, stronger summer storms, have severe, often devastating impacts on people. But, the simple competition over water and the constant effect on the ability to feed one’s family is a reality that we here just do not see.

Unfortunately, the answer to question of the Peruvian farmer was not particularly comforting to him. Many international agencies are working hard to provide assistance to local communities. An emerging approach known as Ecosystem Based Adaptation (EBA) is having success in Uganda. EBA helps people to adapt to impacts of climate change through the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as a part of an overall adaptation strategy. This strengthens ecosystem resilience and reduces the vulnerability of communities to various changes. It is, however, a long term program that despite its success in some areas of Uganda does not necessarily address the immediate needs of a Peruvian farmer. When your food supply is threatened and you do not wish to ask for a handout, the statement that “we will help as best we can” or “we will work with you on long term programs” is not particularly satisfying.

There is a lot that can be done as the world faces the realities of climate change. But, placing a human face on that reality is essential to understanding solutions and demanding action that is needed by so many.

Do you see climate impacts happening in your region/community? Tell us in the comments what they are and what you and others are doing about it.