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Advice for climate strikers

By Andrew Barnes On 19.09.2019 Climate changeBlog

It is starting to feel we’re at a watershed moment. Millions have woken up to what is happening to people on the front line of climate change around the world.

At Practical Action, we’re heartened to see this reach the top of the agenda. Every day our work takes our staff to the heart of the effects of the changing climate – where people are suffering the most.

While thinking of snappy slogans or campaign messages, there’s a risk of oversimplifying things or even omitting some of the most crucial ingredients. When it comes to the complex issue of climate change, these risks are huge.

The need to tackle climate change becomes the need to save the planet. But climate change is also a people issue. It’s caused by some people, allowed to happen by other people, and it manifests itself painfully in the lives of different people who had nothing to do with the cause.

It becomes an issue of extreme weather events causing disasters that need a response. But a much bigger issue is the need for people to radically change the way they live and work if they want to survive in the new planetary reality.

It becomes an issue of climate strikes and campaigns – to put pressure on global decision makers to ensure that we reach emissions goals. But we need to appreciate that the climate change we’ve already set in motion is already having an effect that no amount of future policy change can undo.

At Practical Action we dare not oversimplify, because the issues are complex. But we can offer a unique perspective – the stories of how people are suffering now and what we can do to help them cope, adapt and flourish in the new climate reality they face.

There is much that we can do now. There is much that Practical Action has learned that we can share with others. And if we are to avoid a terrifying future where humanity is segregated into those who can afford to adapt and those who cannot, decisions have to be made very, very carefully – with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people front and centre.

We support the pressure of campaigners, calling for our world’s leaders and global decision-makers to honour past promises and make the right choices for our future. But, for us, climate change is about what’s happening to people now – and what we can do about it.

It’s a people thing

In many places in the world, human survival in challenging environments has been a delicate balancing act for countless generations. For farmers who rely on predictable rainfall for successful crop-growing, this balance is a question of life itself.

Our team in Darfur, Sudan recently sent over some information that shocked more than a few of us. Many people associate Darfur with violent conflict. We saw it on the news, night after night. Rival factions killing, beating, kidnapping. And thousands fleeing for their lives, leaving their belongings and livelihoods behind.

For Suad in Darfur, the impact of climate change is worse than civil war

Thankfully, recent times have been more stable. Many who left their villages have returned from the cities in the hope of rebuilding their lives and farms. Instead they found a new enemy. And it’s more destructive and more deadly than war.

When Suad Saadallah Gamelseed (pictured) returned to her village of Kafod, which had been burnt to the ground during the conflict, she had a new deadly enemy: the desert. Shifting sands previously held at bay by tree cover was now covering farmland, pasture and homes as people cut down the remaining trees to rebuild.

She persevered and planted seeds in expectation of rain at the normal time of year. But climate change has caused unusual rainfall patterns. Farmers can no longer predict when they should plant crops. Most harvests totally, or partially, fail.

Suad told us, “My family has been here for generations. I feel a part of this place.

“I don’t want this place to be abandoned because it is turned into a desert. I want to do everything we can to stop this.

“We have been forced to leave once because of the war and we don’t want to have to do the same because of the desert. But we believe we can do it, because we don’t give up and we don’t want to lose this land again.”

We’re helping Suad and her community overcome this enormous climate-related challenge.

Together we’re stopping the desert creep by replanting community forests that protect land and homes. We’re rebuilding dams so that erratic rainfall is captured and farmland can be irrigated and made productive again. We’re teaching improved farming methods to help prevent soil erosion, rotate crops to improve soil quality, retain water and enable fast response to erratic rainfall.

Our earlier phases of this project in nearby areas have borne fruit – literally. Swathes of semi-arid desert land have been re-greened and are now lush fields, pastureland and forests. And the people are succeeding and not just surviving.

We’re beating the effects of climate change in Darfur, one of world’s most drought-prone areas. If we can beat it here, we can beat it anywhere. It will take ingenuity – in the form of innovation, collaboration and knowledge sharing. That’s the Practical Action way.

None of us is immune

It’s hard for many people in richer countries to imagine that they are connected to Suad’s world. Or that they might ever feel the same climate change impact. But it may just be a matter of time. So let’s look at things using a European example, albeit an unusual one.

In the Netherlands, they’ve always danced delicately with nature, with so many parts of the country lying below sea level. They built their systems of dykes and polders to stop their fields from flooding – and they succeeded.

They are world experts in battling nature and they dominate the global consulting market in high-tech engineering and water management. In recent years they’ve been exporting this expertise, with consultants advising authorities in nations like Bangladesh on flood evacuation routes and emergency shelters. So, you’d think the Dutch wouldn’t be too worried about climate change. But they are.

In this fascinating, and for the Dutch, frankly terrifying, article from Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, experts give their opinion on the outlook for the Netherlands in the context of a sinking country and rising sea levels due to polar ice melting.

Academics, engineers, economists and ecologists are all grappling with the issue. And it’s becoming more and more urgent, as scientific data published as recently as September 2019 is adding to the view that the sea is rising faster than in earlier estimates. The Dutch, it seems have two options.

They can pit their combined wits and wealth against rising sea-levels. But most conclude that they will be fighting a losing battle. Or they could go for Plan B. Except there isn’t one.

Polar meteorologist Roderik van de Wal from Utrecht University is calling for urgent Government action to come up with such a plan. He says, “If we continue as we are, we’ll have to give up a large part of the country. We need to discuss the option of moving to Germany, because we’ll eventually reach a point of no return. And within just ten to twenty years, we’ll come to the realisation that we have already passed that point.”

Many in the Netherlands are urging education authorities to make German a compulsory second language in Dutch schools. Not in a hundred years’ time, but now.

Yes, the Dutch are like the canary in the coal mine, because they start from a point of disadvantage. But it would seem that it doesn’t matter how smart, experienced or wealthy we are, none of us will be immune to the damage we’re doing to the planet.

Consider the Thames Barrier, one of the world’s biggest flood protection structures, keeping London safe from flooding. Authorities say it will be able to cope with rising water levels – but only up to 2030. That’s why the Environment Agency is working on a plan to beef up London’s flood defences – but only up to 2100. And that’s if sea levels don’t rise at a faster rate than anticipated.

It’s about all of us all around the world. And it’s about now.

The frustrating thing for the Dutch is that they could get down to zero emissions, recycle everything and live the greenest lives in the world, but it will make no difference – unless other nations do, too. They are just a small part of the global whole.

Practical Action has pioneered the growing of pumpkins in sandbanks left by receeding flood waters in Bangladesh

We are all dependent on one another. One planet. One people. And we owe our first duty to those of us whose lives and livelihoods have already been ravaged by the climate change we’ve collectively caused. The good news is, there’s plenty we can do.

  • Practical Action has found ways to make farming successful and planet friendly in the harshest environments and in a range of contexts, from the highlands of Nepal, the flood plains of Bangladesh, all the way to drought-hit sub-Saharan Africa.
  • We’ve helped develop advanced systems that use cheap tech to predict floods and enable people to develop action plans to minimise the effects of disasters.
  • We’ve found ways to power up the progress of some of the world’s poorest people through economically viable, clean, affordable energy.
  • We’re pioneering ways to turn human, organic and plastic waste into energy and fertiliser to fuel the planet. Not in ‘easy’ places to operate, but in the world’s biggest refugee camps and cramped urban settlements.

The answers are out there. But it will take ingenuity, a collective effort and a sense of urgency to refine, adopt and scale the solutions globally. And that requires political will and your support.

So we applaud the climate protesters! And we encourage them to embrace the whole picture for the whole world and all of its people…