When I was growing up in South Africa, we would sometimes be shown pictures of emaciated children in Ethiopia or Bangladesh, and would be encouraged to help these children – like ourselves – who were facing starvation. There were organisations we could send our pocket money to, who would help to buy food for these starving children. On World Children’s Day on 1st November, we would be made aware of our own good fortune, and how we could help other children. Of course, under apartheid, we were not told about the hungry children in our own country. Our own farmers faced cycles of drought but in following years, we had great harvests and could rest assured that our food supply was secure.
In those days, the problem was far away, and the worry was someone else’s. Nowadays we are much more aware of the reality of global climate change, and we know that nobody is unaffected. Scientists tell us that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe. Parts of the world that are normally dry are becoming drier, and the wetter parts are receiving even more rain. It sounds like Jesus’ warning in the parable of the talents: “To those who have, even more will be given. From those who have not, even what little they have will be taken away.” (Mt 25:29) I have always puzzled over the justice of this.
It just isn’t fair: And that is the point with global climate change, particularly as it affects Africa. Our countries are the least responsible for climate change, because they are the least industrialised, and contribute the least amount of greenhouse gases. Yet our people are the most likely to suffer from extreme drought, floods, food insecurity, climate migration, conflict and plagues of destructive insects. We are also the least prepared to deal with crises. We have built in the least amount of resilience into our countries’ infrastructure, so that when challenges happen, they are most often disastrous.
While it is a moral imperative to do everything we can to try to reduce climate change, it is also our duty to prepare ourselves for its effects. We can take all the steps I suggested in the last issue of New People. But we should also anticipate that climate change will be with us for a long time, and it is going to bring great disruption. So, for example, every country should have a store of food for lean times, and not have to go begging only once it becomes apparent that a crisis has hit.
Every child should have nutritious food in his or her stomach, and when parents cannot ensure that, it becomes the task of the government to step in. That is why governments should have stock-piles ready for such emergencies. Only when the government cannot cope should aid agencies and foreign countries be asked to help.
Whether we like to admit it or not, climate change is already producing conflict, internal migrants and refugees. Early warning systems could be in place, so that people might move to places of safety before a crisis hits. Nothing is more pitiful than seeing a trail of refugees carrying their possessions, arriving in a place where no provision has been made for them. Also, with sufficient warning, people might be encouraged to sell off some of their livestock before they die of thirst or hunger. I know that this is particularly painful for people whose self-esteem, wealth and perceived future is tied up with their livestock. But is not it better to earn some funds from the sale of their animals, rather than see carcasses dotting the countryside?
I’m afraid that drought and famine are no longer in some remote corner of ‘Africa’ or other parts of the world. But they are here and now, and unpredictable, and here to stay, until climate systems settle down again. This may take decades or even centuries. In the meantime, we all need the foresight to “Be Prepared” as the Boy Scouts say. With what little we have, we need to find ways to make it do more.
By Fr Peter Knox, SJ.