Global Climate Change and the Urgency for Collective Action
Climate change is an issue that many Americans in the northeast are aware of but most consider to be a problem for the future. For years, I too dismissed the urgency of climate change. This was until I realized that to believe climate change is a problem for the future is to dismiss the destructive effects that climate change has on global health, economic security, and the lives of everyday families. In fact, to dismiss the climate movement is to neglect the millions of people affected by climate change globally today.
During the spring of 2018, I studied in Tanzania where I researched environmental policy and global climate change. I lived in a small rural town where agriculture and pastoralism provided families with their means of survival. Situated at the top of an escarpment, our town looked out on Mto Wa Mbu—a larger town buzzing with small businesses—to the left. Straight ahead, the town faced farms and herds of cows dispersed throughout the rolling hills. To the right, it overlooked Manyara National Park, within which elephants, lions, wildebeest and zebras roamed freely. This naturally beautiful sight was further enhanced by the vibrancy of the green and seemingly healthy land, a product of the heavy rainfall of the wet season. A naked eye would view the landscape in wonder, blind to the far harsher reality that prevails.
One night in March, I stayed up late listening to the rain pounding on the tin roof of my banda. I smiled thinking about how familiar and comforting this noise had become. Indeed, I slept in perfect peace that night. The next morning I awoke to flooding across land and in homes outside of our American campsite. The fields were destroyed, Mto Wa Mbu’s shops underwater, and several local children were found drowned in their homes and at their school. Flash flooding had struck and to my disturbance, this was anything but extraordinary for local community members; the extreme weather events associated with climate change had become their lived experience.
Tanzania’s environment is an intricate web in which human alterations to local ecosystems have been exacerbated by climate change. To delve into this complexity briefly: businesses and farms—both used as agents to achieve economic development during the post-colonial era—have prompted high levels of human encroachment within forests, causing deforestation and land erosion. This in turn has decreased the ability of surrounding forests to serve as water catchment systems that collect water for community use. During the dry season, climate change has led to more extreme droughts. Due to the lack of a water catchment system because of deforestation, maintaining any rainwater for harvest has become exceedingly difficult. During the wet season, climate change has led to more severe rainfalls. These rainfalls, in tandem with deforestation, have led to an increase in the amount of water flowing from high to low regions as there are no longer enough tree roots to hold the soil firmly in place to absorb the water. Unfortunately, previous canals located in the lower regions—which used to direct water to major lakes—do not have the capacity for the influx of water; thus, it floods into towns. Moreover, because of deforestation, land erosion is far more common, so when water migrates downwards, it drags the soil along with it. As a result of this, the water that empties into lakes carries high levels of silt from the soil, leading to the drying up of the body of water. Thus, these lakes are no longer to provide for local communities and wildlife as richly and fully as they previously did.
The combination of barer forests and drier water sources has induced intense competition between animals and humans for basic resources. Humans require firewood to provide meals for their families; animals rely on the forest as their habitat. And all the while, the most basic resource required by all living beings—water—continues to diminish. Equally as important has been the increased flooding described earlier that regularly kills human beings and destroys local businesses. In light of this, how can we even consider a discussion about human security in the global south without addressing the fact that a single rainstorm stole lives? How can we consider global economic development without recognizing the destabilizing threat that weather presents to local businesses and farms?
While climate change remains an abstract idea for most Americans—especially in the northeast—daily struggle, death, and economic destruction due to climate change are a regular occurrence for people living in the global south. We are soaked with privilege: a privilege that provides us with unearned advantages that generally allow us to endure even the worst of rainstorms without fearing for our finances, relationships, and the livelihoods of fellow community.
It is essential for activists in all fields to push our conversation about the environment further. Once again, we cannot talk about economics, global health, human security, or the environment without considering the realities of the global south. We must work with communities to learn about their cultural and economic norms, as well as the direct role of climate change in their lives. It is their insight and experiences that must provide the driving force for our environmental movement and advocacy work. Thus I encourage all students interested in the environment, as well as those interested in global health, development and human rights, to consider an immersive experience in a country such as Tanzania. Immersion fosters broader knowledge, inclusivity, and experience that will help to transform the environmental movement in powerful ways. We must change perceptions that climate change is a problem for the future. And further, we must account for the daily realities of those with far less privilege than ourselves so that we are collectively able to wage a more powerful fight against climate change.
(The overhead photo, courtesy of Izzi Lambrecht, captures the landscape of northern Tanzania.)