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Hope, passion, urgency and destiny

Why Africans are leading the charge to renew the Kyoto Protocol

By Alanna Mitchell

The Africans attending the climate talks in Durban, South Africa, are passionately clear about one thing: they don’t want the Kyoto Protocol to die on their soil.

That’s partly because they have a lot invested in the outcome. Already, they’re feeling the effects of climate change. Lake Chad has dried up, and winds on the island of Madagascar are uncharacteristically strong and stay around for months, Raymond Lumbuenama, of World Wildlife Fund in Central Africa, told a group of reporters today.

Climate change affects the ability to grow food. The more the rain patterns change, the more people are vulnerable to food shortages. The current famine in the horn of Africa is linked to the high-carbon world we have created.

But, as Lumbuenama pointed out, Africans are not historically big emitters of carbon. The developed world — including the United States and Europe — have put more ancient carbon into the atmosphere than the less developed.

“We are victims of climate change we didn’t make,” Lumbuenama said.

It’s not only the injustice of climate change that has Africans going to great lengths to encourage world leaders to extend the Kyoto Protocol. There is a sense of destiny, too.

Africa is the cradle of humanity. Paleontologists are certain that our species evolved here and left in waves over hundreds of thousands of years to populate other, less hospitable parts of the planet.

The most recent wave was perhaps 60,000 years ago, when we forged our way into the Middle East, and from there to Asia, Europe, Australia and eventually the Americas.

Then, of course, the great task of industrialization began, and, just 250 years ago, the digging up and burning of the fossils we now use to power the global economy. After that, the dramatic, dangerous rise in the carbon load of the atmosphere and the ocean.

What would it mean for humanity if the Kyoto Protocol dies here next week? Scientists know that the very fate of humanity is at stake as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere rises and the ocean turns acidic. Not just the civilizations we have created over these thousands of years, but the fate of the human species itself.

The thing is, Africans know this. And so do Europeans, Australians, South Americans, Central Americans and most Asians. Around most of the globe, there is no debate on this matter. People can see the evidence of the change right before their eyes.

So what’s stopping a new deal? Mainly a handful of people — certainly not the majority — in the United States, Canada and a few others who stand to gain more money from the burning of fossil fuels.

Africans hold another powerful card in the unfolding of this critical moment in human history. Across the continent, and particularly in South Africa, Africans have overhauled massive, toxic systems of economy and government. Apartheid is dead. Colonization and slavery are old stories. Africans know that what seems impossible is actually imminent.

The Africans bring tangible hope to this knotty enterprise. They bring urgency and a sense of fate. Who knows? Maybe it will be enough.

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