AT FIRST glance Addis Ababa looks like a city in a mad rush somewhere. Skeletal cranes reach into the sky, invoking memories of the clueless Celtic Tiger, writes Michael Clifford.
Everywhere you look, there are concrete frames, newly poured, nearly finished. The air is grey with the fumes of clogged, erratic traffic. The streets are alive with people walking furiously, as if they are all part of a campaign to march the Ethiopian economy into double digit growth.
So it looked last week when Mary Robinson landed in the city with the chiefs executive from Concern, Goal, and Trócaire. Robinson is the UN’s special envoy on climate change.
Three months ago she had added to her brief responsibility for reporting to the UN on El Nino, a phenomenon that is wrecking havoc in large areas of eastern and southern Africa. Robinson and the Irish delegation were in town to drag the eyes of the West to the impact of climate change in the developing world.
Mention climate change in this country and those who even contemplate the issue think in terms of the future. Nobody wants to hand the planet over to unborn generations in a terminally damaged state. The reality, however, is that climate change is already here, and being felt by those least able to absorb its worst effects.
El Nino sounds cutesy but is a harbinger of misery. It occurs every two to seven years when a warming of surface water leads to a rising of temperatures across the equatorial zone of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean, affecting circulation and ultimately leading to a depletion of rain.
It peaks around December. Last year was the worst El Nino in half a century, rendering a further major blow to the regularity and quantity of rainfall that is disrupting the lives of millions in the developing world. This, according to numerous studies — not to mind plain logic — is directly attributable to climate change.
A report published by Trócaire earlier this year outline many of the problems now being faced in the developing world due to the ongoing attack on the planet. In eastern Africa, this has led to the main growing season “declining by approximately 15% since the 1980s”.
The report goes on: “The most prominent trend has been towards reduced rainfall amounts with the growing season length (March to May) across much of eastern Africa. Occuring during the main grown season in poor countries dependent on rain-fed agriculture, these declines are societally dangerous, impacting adversely on household livelihoods and food security and have been assocated with human induced warming of the Indian Ocean.”
On Wednesday, the UN stated that up to 100m people could be adversely affected by El Nino and La Nina, which usually follows on from the former and causes major flooding. Despite the efforts of many of the counties affected, the UN estimates that $4bn is required to address the havoc that has been wrecked.
Nowhere has this misery been more devastating that in Ethiopia. As anyone over 45 will testify to, that country has long been associated with the famine of the mid 80s, Live Aid and Bob Geldof.
The world has moved on since those days. Addis Ababa is a thriving city, although the frenzied activity may not be as productive as it appears on first glance. But out in the rural heartlands — where 90% of the 95m population live — hunger has again become a critical issue.
The outcome of two harvests failing last year has been 10.8m suffering from malnutrition. It means parents unable to feed their children, subsistence farmers selling their livestock for food, despite being fully aware that they are selling next year’s food. For those worst affected, it’s a matter of selling off anything that raises cash to keep the hunger at bay.
Among those affected are 3m children who have had to leave school as a result of the drought. One-in-six children in affected areas are categorised as suffering severe malnutrition. Can you imagine an existence where you instinctively look to the sky to call for rain so your children might eat?
Fate had dealt Ethiopia a poor enough hand without having to deal with the effects of climate change. As the country’s health minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after meeting with Robinson last Tuesday: “We have contributed nothing [to climate change] but we are the victims. And although we are the victims we want to be part of the solution.” He has a point.
The average Ethiopian is responsible for 0.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, compared to 8.8 metric tonnes for the average Irish person. In other words, it takes 88 Ethiopians to emit as much carbon dioxide as one Irish person. The reality is that the West regards the impact of climate change with one blind eye.
Leaders gather and pay homage to Saint Augustine with a plea to be made pure, but just not now, not this side of the next election. Tackling the phenomenon is relegated in the hierarchy of priorities among leaders because of the fear than firm action will impact to a greater or lesser degree on domestic economies. Courage is in short supply.
Take our own great leader, Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Last December, he talked the passionate talk at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, pledging that we are obliged to save the planet. Then he made a special pleading for Ireland to get an exemption from the agreed emission target as it might impact on agriculture in particular.
On a bigger stage there is the Trumpites who simply deny the phenomenon because of what it might cost to address it. The fall-out from Brexit is likely to relegate further the imperative of tackling the issue, as a raising of trade barriers may lead to a lowering of standards in carbon emissions, in order to make investment more attractive in places like the UK.
That’s the fractured world we live in. While children die, and the life is sucked out of towns and villages across east Africa, due to man-made damage, the West tells itself it hasn’t happened yet, that there’s time to talk some more about it.
Ethiopians are a proud people. Unlike most other African countries, theirs was never colonised when the western powers ran amok in the 19th century.
Today, the main damage being done to the country is coming once more from the excesses of the West, which bears the brunt of responsibility for warming the planet, and depleting the rains.
The strong are once more impacting negatively on the lives of those who don’t have the same resources to fight or defend themselves.
Guns are not being used this time, but blind indifference is already doing much the same job.
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