Climate change: Too much at stake to play political games

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to US president Barack Obama offers hope —and a challenge — in this regard. Since assuming the presidency, Obama has demonstrated a willingness to use the Unites States’ still enormous power to build a more peaceful world. He has emphasised the importance of inclusivity, diplomatic engagement, and mutual respect. He’s also offered a vision of what is possible when one is determined to overcome obstacles.

All these principles are essential to solving the climate challenge. The realities of global warming will make unprecedented demands on every country, whether in the millions of economic and environmental refugees arriving on the shores of rich nations, the collapse of forests and agricultural systems, or in the risk of mass starvation among the poor.

We know that climate change won’t affect everyone equally. Those who are poorest, oldest, youngest, female, who live along coasts, in arid regions, or who depend directly on the land for livelihoods, will feel its effects most.

Evidence of the havoc climate change can cause arrives daily, especially in regions already vulnerable and ill-prepared. In my own country, Kenya, a prolonged drought has meant that nearly 10 million people, almost a third of the population, require food aid. Crops are failing and livestock, without water or food, are dying.

Wildlife — the backbone of Kenya’s tourist industry — is also dying as major rivers run dry and grasslands wither. And children and the elderly have begun to die of hunger and thirst.

In Guatemala, insufficient rainfall and poor soils have devastated crops of corn and beans. Thousands of people now face a food emergency. At the other extreme, in India and Bangladesh, and Niger in West Africa, too much rain has led to cataclysmic flooding, and the loss of thousands of lives.

At its core, the climate challenge is a challenge of leadership: to find leadership that’s honest and principled, visionary and practical; that communicates the urgency of the tasks and what’s required of its people; that prepares them for the hard choices and inevitable sacrifices that global warming will bring; that puts in place policies for the benefit of this and future generations, not simply those that are expedient or lead to short-term political gain.

This leadership would ask of the world’s people the same allegiance to transparency, equity, and justice it ought to demand of itself.

But industrialised and developing nations have widely divergent responsibilities for creating and solving the climate crisis. Africa, for instance, has contributed only a tiny proportion of the greenhouse gases now warming the planet, around five percent of the total.

Industrialised countries have an obligation to the rest of the world not only to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions markedly, but also to make concrete commitments to assist poorer nations in adapting to climate shocks and forging development paths that don’t cost the Earth. That’s the way to climate justice.
At the same time, leadership in developing countries must rise to the challenge. Many such nations have experienced decades of environmental mismanagement or outright neglect, and current government policies on adaptation to changing ecological conditions remain largely inadequate.

Some governments, including my own, have tolerated or even facilitated the plunder of forests, the degradation of land, and unsustainable agricultural practices. All of this has increased the likelihood that the seasonal rains will fail, soil will be washed away, and land that was fertile will turn to desert. Poverty grows, and desperate, deadly scrambles over scarce resources will ensue.

In such a world, peace is elusive, and resources that should be used to protect the environment are instead diverted to deal with conflicts and general insecurity.

Too much is at stake to tolerate political games, or political brinkmanship, any longer. Enough is enough. If we fail now, future summits will have to focus on the costs, in lives.

The Nobel Peace Prize gives president Obama a greater opportunity, and an expectation, to continue encouraging the world to walk towards healing old and new wounds, and to learn to co-exist in peace. When he accepts the prize on Dec 10, the Copenhagen climate talks will be underway.

The world’s leaders also have an opportunity to demonstrate that they understand the singular nature of the climate challenge and are prepared to lead. The time has come to be decisive. Climate change demands nothing less.

(The writer is a Nobel Peace Laureate and the founder of the Green Belt Movement)

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