Monday, April 12, 2010

Never A Truer Word Spoken

A rare deforestion poster in Mulanje, Malawi. It says in Chichewa, "The Evil Of Fire" -Most of the forest in the country is gone to slash and burn agriculture and energy.

The wind is blowing an unseasonable mist over the city of Blantyre. It's cold, too cold for late summer, and the torrential rain of last week has only slightly abated. Here in Malawi's southern region, millions of people live from harvest to harvest, dependent completely on whether the rain comes at the right times of the year.

The planting starts in December, or these days November. It's anyone's guess and everyone's gamble. Monsanto maize, bought by farmers, who are supplied with the vital Monsanto fertlizer by the government, have but three short months where their yearly crop must grow, fruit and then dry in the fields. If too much or too little rain falls at one of these crucial parts of the process, the crop will be lost. This is hand-to-mouth living, right on the edge of survival, dependent soley upon the weather, and the weather has been getting unpredictable.

One of the most important mitigators of rainfall and run-off has been lost. Flying from Lilongwe, in the central region, down to Blantyre, in the south, the plane soars at only twenty thousand feet. Close enough to see that the forests that covered this whole country have been decimated. So gone are they that the uneducated observer would not believe they were ever here, and that the bare hills and valleys, cut by erosion, were ever thus.

So without forest to protect against torrential flooding, or to bring the rain, as outlined in this excellent study at Columbia University, the people of Malawi and virtually all of Africa are at the mercy of Climate Change.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner, writes in the New York Times Magazine this week about what can be done to Build a Green Economy, and how to make big sweeping changes in the way we pollute and control CO2 by simple processes that have already worked well in the United States. His is a welcome exploration of the issues around climate science and he gives a chilling and urgent reminder that responding to this crisis is not negotiable, no matter where on political spectrum your beliefs may lay.

Other climate thinkers like writer Paolo Bacigalupi, economist Nicholas Stern, and The Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown have all agreed that it is poor countries who are facing the worst hazards of climate change because of their precarious food security, and that this is just a taste of things to come for all of us.

If the indian monsoon did not come for one single year, the world's total food production would not be enough to feed all of the people who would go hungry. Bacigalupi's "contraction" would begin, and "growth" and "development" will become quaint terms, lost to our dwindling human population.

Brown believes that a contraction may already be under way, and that the current recession is as much about commodity prices and water resources in the face of global scarcity than it is about the price of oil, or the United States' credit market. The latter, says Brown, just fell because it was the most unstable, like the first to topple in a house of cards.

Krugman gives us a chance. He sees the obstacles to cleaning our air and greening our businesses and economy as surmountable, and carefully regulated carbon markets can successfully regulate pollution, be cost effective, and there is a lot in his article to suggest he is right. I certainly hope so.

There are millions of individual reasons here in Malawi to start reducing our greenhouse gas emmissions today, and hopefully part of that Cap and Trade system also sees third-world countries replanted with their lost forests as a way to further remove the carbon already in the atmosphere, bring back regular rainfall, and stop erosion. Maybe then not only will the rich emitting states enjoy good schooling, three meals a day, and the chance to live without fear of hunger.

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