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The Road to Durban: Tracking Global Warming's Devastating Impact Across the African Continent

StoryDecember 05, 2011
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For more on the impact of climate change on the African continent and an update on the U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP 17, talks, we’re joined in Durban by John Vidal, environment editor for The Guardian. Vidal has just returned from a journey between Africa’s two most industrialized countries, Egypt and South Africa. His route included one of Africa’s poorest nations, Malawi; its newest, Southern Sudan; and its hungriest, Ethiopia. He visited some of the continent’s most remote tribes in Uganda and Kenya, and coastal areas here in South Africa. For all of these countries, the stakes of what comes out of COP 17 are high. "It was a terrifying journey of reality," says Vidal. "Very little science has been done... But there’s absolutely no doubt about the consequences, which are going to be very much much hotter temperatures, making it almost impossible to live in many areas, huge effects on the poor people." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s Climate Countdown. We’re broadcasting from the U.N. climate change summit in Durban, South Africa. It’s called the COP 17. That’s Conference of Parties—some are calling it here "Conference of Polluters." Thousands of people marched in the streets this weekend. We were there and were inside, as well.

And right now we are joined by John Vidal. John Vidal is the environment editor for The Guardian of Britain. And John Vidal has done this remarkable piece that looks at his "Road to Durban."

John, I’m going to have you describe it to me. But you took a journey between Africa’s two most industrialized countries, Egypt and South Africa. Your route included one of Africa’s poorest nations, Malawi; its newest, Southern Sudan; its hungriest, Ethiopia. You visited some of the continent’s most remote tribes in Uganda and Kenya. Talk about this journey, why you took it, and how it relates to climate change.

JOHN VIDAL: We started in the north, in Egypt. And I’d been told that Egypt was going to be terribly affected by sea level rises, and whatever. What we found was that it’s basically climate change is affecting the poorest people, the people who can’t respond, the most. In Egypt, we found that the sea level rise is going to affect the farmers, because the soils have become salinated. There won’t be so much water coming down the rivers, and whatever. And we moved all the way further south, talking to scientists, talking to farmers, talking to the poorest people. They’re the ones who are getting it in the neck right now, let alone in 20, 30, 50 or a hundred years’ time. And it was a terrifying journey of reality, really, I think, showing that very little science has been done. Not enough science has been done. Much more needs to be done. But there’s absolutely no doubt about the consequences, which are going to be very much much hotter temperatures, making it almost impossible to live in many areas, huge effects on the poor people. The people living on the land are going to be the ones who are affected most.

AMY GOODMAN: Egypt, then take us to the next country.

JOHN VIDAL: That’s Egypt. Then you go down to the south, in the Southern Sudan. There, it’s very interesting, because we’ve had conflict there for generations and generations. But the question there is, how far is climate change feeding into conflict between different traditionally warring groups? And what you’re finding is the resources are stretched further and further, therefore you get people competing more for water, competing for land, and therefore you get more conflict. And now you can’t make that absolutely a direct thing. You cannot say that climate change has caused the war in Darfur. But you can say that it’s definitely aggregating it. It’s making things—putting it closer to the tipping point, so that these things become inevitable.

AMY GOODMAN: Take us further south, from Southern Sudan.

JOHN VIDAL: Further south, we went into—we went then into—

AMY GOODMAN: And how long was this journey that you took?

JOHN VIDAL: Well, I had to fly quite a lot, because the distances are absolutely enormous. You’ve got to remember about Africa is that it’s big enough to take the whole of India, the whole of China, the whole of the United States. I mean, the scale of Africa is very, very different to what most people imagine.

We went further south, a thousand miles south, went to Uganda. There, we were with the Karamojong, who are the traditional cattle herders, very, very old races of people who move their cattle. They are being affected more and more and more. And they haven’t got pasture lands. They haven’t got water. And they are terrified for their future. Now, there is—again, there are many, many other reasons why the Karamojong and other tribes are in trouble, but climate change is going to make it that much worse, and therefore it speeds up a process of alienation, which is going on anyway.

We then went to the coffee farmers in Uganda up in the Rwenzori Mountains. These are the—some of the highest mountains in Africa, 16,000 feet. One hundred years ago, there was seven square miles of ice cover there. Now there’s less than one mile. It is basically—within 20 years, they believe there will be no snow and ice on the Rwenzori Mountains. These are the Mountains of the Moon, which traditionally have fed the Nile, which were known to Ptolemy, which were known to the ancient Greeks and whatever. Traditionally, they were covered in cloud. We could see them, because climate change means, in a sort of bizarre way, that the weather is, in Western terms, better. You can see more. What it means is that actually there’s less rain. The coffee farmers are caught. They already have their production 20 percent down from what they used to get only 10, 15 years ago, and that’s very largely because the coffee they grow cannot grow in just even a one- or two-degree increase in temperatures. So they are really hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going.

JOHN VIDAL: And from there, we went to Kenya. And I was very interested in Wangari Maathai, who was the great tree planter. She won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

AMY GOODMAN: And just died a few weeks ago.

JOHN VIDAL: Who just died. So we went to see her operation. And I was amazed, actually. And some really good things are happening, partly because of her initiatives. Kenya has decided it is going to plant seven billion—not million—seven billion trees in the next 20 years. Now, that is, you know, 20, 30, 50 times more than Wangari ever managed to do. But it shows what can happen when a government actually does say, "Yes, this is—we need to do this." So there, the issue was water. The five great water towers of Kenya are drying out. And that means there’s no hydroelectric power. That means there’s no electricity for the cities. That means there’s greater poverty. Just in the north of Kenya, you have an enormous drought, which is the fifth one in 10 years, looking like it could become permanent.

Just to the north of Kenya, you have Ethiopia, and you have a terrifying drought there, which, as we know, has led directly to thousands of people dying. Now we’re not saying that climate change is going to cause these droughts; we’re going to say that climate change, on top of all the other actions which are taking place, is going to make things much worse.

AMY GOODMAN: John, you’ve now made it to Durban, South Africa. We are now inside the belly of the beast. In Copenhagen, we called it the "Bella of the beast," because it was the Bella Center. But right here, behind us today, you just had Todd Stern speaking, the chief U.N. climate negotiator. You had the climate representative from China also addressing the delegates and the media. Talk about the status of the talks. We don’t have much time, but—and where the U.S. stands in all of this—a great deal of anger being expressed against the United States by so many inside the conference and outside in the streets.

JOHN VIDAL: OK. The big story right now is whether Europe can come up with a parallel plan, which would somehow bring in all the countries. And what Europe wants to do is have a new treaty, and which would somehow bring in America, bring in China, bring in India, whatever. It’s cloud cuckoo land. I mean, they haven’t got a chance in heck, because the Indians and the Chinese and whatever are just not ready to do this. But Europe is trying to cover its ass to make sure that we don’t get another Copenhagen. We’re lining up to blame China. I can see this happening right now, is that the—Europe is saying, "Come and join us, come and join us, come and join us." China is saying, "No, no, no, no, no, no. We’ve got hundreds of millions of people. We can’t." And I fear that what’s going to happen is that China, as it did in Copenhagen, will get the blame for no progress in these talks. Otherwise, it’s not going very well at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you have 16 chief American NGOs, nonprofit environmental groups, a big base of constituency for President Obama, really harshly criticizing Obama, saying that he’s become the chief obstacle to climate negotiations.

JOHN VIDAL: I think—I think that’s been sort of an ever-present in the last—the last four or five years, America has been seen as the problem. America is playing a very clever hand, basically sort of saying, "If other countries want to sign up their own legally binding agreement, that’s their problem. They can do that. We won’t do it." They only will do it if China will do it and if India will do it. And if those won’t, then it won’t. It knows perfectly well they won’t, therefore it doesn’t have to do anything at all. And that’s its "get out" clause.

AMY GOODMAN: What should—what do you think the United States should be doing right now? And why do you think it would serve the U.S. economy, as opposed to why so many in the United States are saying we can’t do anything about a global climate fund because we are dealing with a broken economy in the United States?

JOHN VIDAL: This is not going to cost America anything at all, actually. It’s going to—America could take the world lead very, very easily. It could switch just like that. It could become absolutely the hero of these talks. It’s chosen not to. It hasn’t changed its position in three years.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does Kyoto fit into this, mandatory limits for greenhouse gas emissions at this point in the earth’s history?

JOHN VIDAL: America doesn’t want Kyoto part two. It’s as simple as that. And therefore, the rest of the world is not going to get it. America is the ultimate behind-the-scenes bully. It is pulling all the strings in these talks. That is why Europe is trying to find a separate, parallel track, and everybody under them.

AMY GOODMAN: Why won’t the United States accept mandatory limits?

JOHN VIDAL: Because it fears—it fears—it seems it fears absolutely the words "legally" and "binding." It cannot accept that, because of its own internal political problems and whatever. But it does—will not commit itself legally to another agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: And if it did commit itself legally, how could it help the United States, not to mention the rest of the world?

JOHN VIDAL: If it did, it would only do it on the terms that every other country would do it, in which case all countries would go together, and it would not lose anything at all. The gains would be immeasurable economically, socially, politically and environmentally.

AMY GOODMAN: John Vidal, I want to thank you for being with us. John Vidal is the Guardian environment editor. He’s covering COP 17 here in Durban, recently finished a series about his trip between Africa’s two most industrialized countries. We will link to "The Road to Durban" at

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