World of Sand

November 25, 2008

Climate change is a real and present threat to human life. It’s very useful to say that in front of the mirror every morning, as if you read the newspapers in the UK and the U.S. you’ll very easily forget it. There are so many tragedies waiting to happen. Take a report in the Nigerian daily This Day, for example. Journalist Nosike Ogbuenyi writes that Scientists and environmental experts have warned that millions of people in Nigeria could be displaced by rising sea levels in the next half century, as ocean surges swamp some of Africa’s most expensive real estate and its poorest slums.”

As Stefan Cramer of the Heinrich Boll Foundation puts it, “Lagos is a megacity with 15 million people, half of them at two meters (6 ft) above sea level, and that puts them at risk as hardly any other big city in the world.” And how much do we hear in the UK about this threat to 15 million people? With a comparatively minor sea level rise of 1 metre, Cramer reports, 2-3 million people in Lagos will be made homeless.

Meanwhile, to the south and east, Beyelsa state stands to simply disappear. As Emmanuel Obot of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation told Ogbuenyi, “If that happens, the refugee problem will be so massive that I don’t think Nigeria is ready.”

The rest is shameful and pitiful. Germany’s President, Horst Kohler, was in Lagos for a function, and told journalists that there was a “need for Nigeria and other African countries with coastal shelves to begin to take more seriously the dangers posed by global warming to the environment.” As if Germany is a zero carbon society.

Then there are the laudable efforts of Nigerians to reduce their emissions – “the accelerated planting of trees to absorb carbon emission, the stoppage of burning of refuse, the increased reliance on usage of renewable solar energy by the state, the emphasis on multi-modal transportation through the establishment of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), expansion of water transportation channels and the planned rail mass transit systems as some of the measures taken to curtail carbon emission thereby reducing the risk of global warming….”

You do need to linger over reports like this. Nigeria is not alone. None of us are, but we continue to be fatally divided.

It’s all extremely ironic, as well as tragic. Take Lagos, for example. While there is no doubt that the huge shanty towns of the capital will be devastated, containing as they do many dwellings built on stilts in the waters of a tidal lagoon, the rich will also suffer.

In a business decision that is reminiscent of London’s myopic Thames Gateway development, a plush neighborhood on Lagos’ Lekki peninsular has been built largely on “sand which has never been properly consolidated” in Cramer’s words.

But feel free to extend the Lekki peninsular all the way to Manhattan and Belgravia, an beyond. Civilization is built on poorly consolidated sand.

Or ice. Reports suggest that Andean glaciers in Ecuador are shrinking faster than had been previously feared. Again, such reports communicate horrific visions. As Jorge Nunez from Ecuador’s Environment Ministry puts it, “Ensuring our water supply is one of biggest problems that will result from climate change, affecting millions of people. It is really important to talk about education to prevent [water] abuse.”

But with 30 years of glacier water left, it seems more logical to conserve water by pissing in the wind and holding a cup outstretched. Without global action it’s all absolutely pointless.

The election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency offers some hope. He is promising to “help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change” including an upfront commitment to reducing U.S. emissions by 80 percent, below 1990 levels, by 2050. This is change we want to believe in.

Unfortunately, Obama was talking to delegates at a conference at which he will have no direct power. The fate of the UN meeting in Poznan, Poland to draft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, will depend on representatives of the Bush administration.

Obama has stated that “While I won’t be president at the time of your meeting, and while the United States has only one president at a time, I’ve asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there.”

This means that virtually no progress towards an effective global treaty in line even with the science of 2005 will be achieved in Poznan.

Meanwhile, the visions of horror will simply mount.

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