Bringing Home the Climate Crisis

An article in the New York Times today reports on emerging water shortages in El Alto, Bolivia, due to the disappearance of glaciers in the nearby mountains. The glacier melt is the result of climate change, and the article notes that El Alto may be “the first large urban casualty of climate change.” People there talk seriously about leaving the city; neighboring La Paz has cut supplies to water-intensive businesses; and nearby farmers ponder not having more children because the future of agriculture is so bleak.

I read about climate issues daily, and with intense interest now that the Copenhagen conference is lurching toward a climax. But this story brought the issue home: El Alto is where my children, Sam and Clara, were born. My wife and I know people there (at the orphanage, in the court system) and of course Sam and Clara have blood relatives there. Although these personal ties are not close, suddenly, climate change is not just a global tragedy for us, but a family one.

I have long known that many cities in western South America are endangered by glacier melt. A World Bank analysis last year reported that Quito, Ecuador, gets 50 percent of its water from glacier melt, and La Paz, 30 percent. In addition, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru get half or more of their electricity from hydropower, much of which is dependent on glacier runoff. And Bolivia is just one of many, many countries where glacier melt, sea level rise, storms, drought, and floods are causing suffering–typically for people whose responsibility for the climate crisis hardly registers on a global scale.

But sobering as the statistics are, they don’t touch me as deeply as the realization that people I know, people with faces and names, people I have laughed with and shared a meal with, are being hit by the changing climate. Here at Worldwatch, we talk often about how to rally people around distant and future threats. We regularly turn to data, but the truth is that data works only some of the time, for some of the public. Data isn’t personal, and it can’t always break through some of our psychological defenses, as this blog recommended by my colleague Tom Prugh suggests.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has his own view of what’s needed to get us to act in the face of the overwhelming threat that is climate change. In a sermon in Copenhagen today he said:

…what is most likely to get us to take the right decisions for our global future is love. The temptation is to underline fear so as to persuade one another of the urgency of the situation: things are so bad, so threatening, that we have to do something…But this is to drive out one sickness by another…fear can simply paralyse us, as we all know…

Yes, love would definitely help. But reading the Times article today reminded me that it’s hard to love in the abstract, that movement of the heart is easier when relationships, however tenuous, are directly involved. If we all had a direct connection to suffering climate victims, the Copenhagen talks, I dare say, would be proceeding more smoothly to a happy resolution.

The irony is that I already had a direct connection to climate outcomes long before reading today’ s article. Sam and Clara moved away from the Bolivian water crisis when we adopted them, only to face an emerging, climate-driven water crisis here in the Sierra Nevada mountains where we now live. In Bolivia the crisis is further along, but Sam and Clara have not escaped water scarcity; it is our future here as well.

You, too, have an unfolding climate crisis in your backyard, because climate will affect every region of the planet in one way or another. So if you don’t know any climate victims, get engaged by learning about your own climate future. Try this website if you’re in the U.S. Make it real. Bring it home. Then contact the White House and your member of Congress and demand action. Plenty of people, many in your own community, need a healthy dose of climate love.

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