Climate Change, Snow, and Africa

Climate Change, Snow, and Africa February 18, 2010

During the recent snowstorm in the eastern United States, I thought to myself, will the global warming denialists be using the this storm to rally against global warming? Surely they realize that increased precipitation is fully compatible with, and even predicted by, climate change? Surely they understand that the differences between trends and cycles? Surely they realize that, despite the frigid temperatures in the densely populated areas of Europe and North America, January 2010 was among the warmest on record? Alas no, the Fox News- Limbaugh crowd displayed their ignorance with glee, portraying this is as the final nail in the coffin for man-made global warming which has already been discredited by doctoring the data.

Of course, there has been no discrediting. The evidence for a starkly increasing global temperature remains unshakable, and the links to carbon emission remain indisputable. As the Real Climate puts it:

“In some media reports the impression has been given that even the fundamental results of climate change science are now in question, such as whether humans are in fact changing the climate, causing glacier melt, sea level rise and so on…Overall then, the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well. There have been a few isolated errors, and these have been acknowledged and corrected. What is seriously amiss is something else: the public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm. All of these various “gates” – Climategate, Amazongate, Seagate, Africagate, etc., do not represent scandals of the IPCC or of climate science. Rather, they are the embarrassing battle-cries of a media scandal, in which a few journalists have misled the public with grossly overblown or entirely fabricated pseudogates, and many others have naively and willingly followed along without seeing through the scam.”

I’ve been following the impact of climate change on developing countries, especially in Africa, for some time. In these parts of the world, climate change is not some future abstraction we can debate, it is the here and now. Depending on the area, Africa is suffering from desertification, water shortages, drought, low crop yields, flooding in fastly-urbanizing cities, water stress in river basins, increased disease, a decline in fisheries, and increasing population displacement. This is directly affecting the livelihood and security of some of the poorest, most vulnerable, people on the planet. I heard a Ghanaian talk about coastal towns he remembers that simply have been washed away. And of course, the very existence of many island nations is at stake. This is real. This is happening.

One African who understands what is happening is Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In an interview with John Allen, he noted the following:

“Could climate change be that kind of hysteria? Maybe. The other day I attended a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and somebody came close to suggesting that all this is part of a cycle. We had the age of the glaciers, and today’s warming is part of the same cycle, so we’ve gone through this before. Maybe, but for the guy who lives in Papua New Guinea or someplace, whose island is now under water, whose fields where he used to feed and grow is now under water, this isn’t hysterical. The land upon which he used to live has disappeared. The water level has risen, and that island has disappeared. That’s not hysteria, it’s a real threat to life. For example, in Ghana and several tropical African countries, the weather cycle has changed so much that farmers can no longer predict when to sow and when not to sow. As a result, the harvests are poor, and that’s not hysteria either. For some, [climate change] isn’t just a theory, it’s a real experience.”

It was against this background I discovered a post by one Thomas Peters, a young jostler in hard-right Catholic circles. Master Peters discovered that the California bishops has proposed a carbon fast for lent – a nice idea – and was decidedly unimpressed, so unimpressed that he intoned the following:

“The “proof” for man-made, carbon-related global waring is unravelling fast. It is not settled science. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the last people to become aware of this development were too focused on distributing calendars telling Catholics to boil water with the lid on rather than keeping up on current events. And regardless of the science of climate change, the idea that Catholic should be more focused on supporting politicized green campaigns instead of focusing on the personal effects of sin is … deeply misguided as well.”

He then links favorably to somebody condemning the “economy crushing cap and tax bill”. Does this really require any comment? Perhaps a little…A number of things are clear. First, Master Peters needs to step out of his narrow little American political bubble and into the real world. If science is too difficult for him, maybe he should consider what is going on in Africa and other low-income regions. Last time I checked, solidarity is still a tenet of Catholic social teaching. Then again, I remember one of my very few interactions with Master Peters was on precisely the subject of climate change a number of years back. When I raised the point about the fate of low-lying islands, he blithely suggested the people simply move. At that point, I decided against further interaction with this American Marie Antoinette.

A second point: when Peters lectures the bishops on sin, he seems unaware that something could be morally amiss with American over-consumption and the consumerist culture, even apart from carbon emissions. But this is precisely the point, isn’t it? For Americans in the liberal tradition of Peters, what matters first and foremost is the God-given right of the individual to consume and possess material goods and to use planetary resources as they see fit. As for the poor, non-Americans, future generations? Let them eat cake.

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