Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Between Two Worlds

It is helpful every once in a while to reflect on one's thoughts from a previous time and think about what has changed and what appears very much the same. Here is a re-posting of a blog entry I wrote in May 2007 that explored my work and travels on the margins of the ongoing climate debate. -Bryan

You can say that my life in recent years has been shaped by natural disasters. Working in the aftermath of earthquakes and Tsunamis had taken me on a memorable journey full of interesting places, people and conversation. It has helped shape career aspirations, given me wonderful friends, and has allowed me to develop a more global perspective on current events. Even though I spent much of ‘05-06 working specifically on issues related to the Indian Ocean Earthquake & Tsunami, it really is difficult to analyze that disaster as an isolated incident. The year that followed saw countless human tragedies of massive scale – from a string of hurricanes through Latin America & the Caribbean, to devastating earthquakes in Indonesia and Pakistan, to the United States and Katrina – perhaps the tipping point for many of us to finally force ourselves to step back and reflect on what the heck is actually occurring. Though our African brothers and sisters lacked such ‘sudden onset’ events to captivate the worlds attention, they were not free from disaster as crises’ in Sudan, Niger and elsewhere were further complicated by food insecurity caused by record drought from the drying up of their lakes and rivers.

Whether I was brainstorming with colleagues in Geneva, having drinks with friends, or shooting the sh&t with random faces in far away places – the conversation never failed to turn towards how unstable this world has become. It didn’t matter if we were doctors, lawyers, engineers, public health professionals, insurance agents, journalists, fisherman or farmers – the central role of the environment and the generally poor political acknowledgement of this among donor nations became a sobering reality for us all. Some have said that people have difficulty grasping the importance of things they cannot see; that it takes a truly profound event in their own lives before they are able to connect all the dots. While that maybe true of some places in regards to global warming – for us it wasn’t so – things were happening very quickly all around – all we had to do was look and listen.

For a country that I did not know existed three years ago, the Maldives now occupies a special place with me. As a long north-south archipelago of over 1000 small islands in the Indian Ocean, it is a breathtakingly beautiful country filled with genuinely nice and caring people. After visiting a subset of these islands, however, to simply say these islands are small is a huge understatement as many of them have a circumference that is easily walked in half an hour. With an average elevation of only 1.5m above sea level, they further claim the title of the lowest lying place on Earth. As you might imagine, the impact of rising oceanic water levels are as clear here as anywhere – and this is evident in government priority setting and planning as officials are constantly thinking of tomorrow, pondering land reclamation schemes and forming alliances with other small island chains to search for solutions. This is a nation literally fighting for their very existence because of climate change – and it is of no fault of their own. With minimal industrial emissions, automobiles and energy consumption – they can safely thank the rest of us for much of their current fate. Perhaps the first moral lesson I carry home is that when a country such as my own contributes to this global mess, we have a responsibility to help clean up that same global mess - and not just in our own backyard.

From one extreme face of global warming to another – I visit one of the most famous glaciers on Earth as the summer of 2006 brings three friends and I to Tanzania and the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro – Africa’s lone remaining snow capped peak. Whether you have been there yourself, have watched An Inconvenient Truth, or have been shown photographs from other travelers, scientists or activists – you might have heard that this glacier is melting away. And it is melting FAST – with current thinking that the snows of Kilimanjaro will be no more in as little as 15 years. On the ground these reports were all corroborated by mountain guides, porters, safari drivers and other local residents we spoke to who all claim that scientific measurements are not even necessary – that even by the naked human eye it is visibly shrinking which each passing year. But what we don’t hear amidst all of these reports is how agriculturally, economically and ecologically dependent the nearby towns, communities and wildlife reserves are on the existence of this glacier and the waters that flow from it in the summer months. Even though Tanzania has traditionally been geographically well positioned so as to not experience the extent of drought that plagues elsewhere on the continent – as their internal waterways gradually dry and Kilimanjaro melts away, the impact on a giant share of its human and world famous animal populations will be devastating.

Since our adventure in East Africa, I have returned home to Toronto (Canada) where I continue to work and study. When settling home again following a long period of instability and regular traveling, there is an inevitable shell shock – a reflection period of sorts where one absorbs on the experiences they’ve had before they go out and really talk or write about where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. For me, this period lasted a little longer than expected and it wasn’t until fairly recently that I really became interested in communicating my story and ideas in more detail. The trigger for me, especially in regards to the welfare of the planet, was a conversation I had with Nancy Karetak-Lindell, Canada’s Member of Parliament for Nunavut. She was visiting Toronto as part of a town hall on “Northern Sovereignty” hosted by my local MP Carolyn Bennett. But it wasn’t just sovereignty that was discussed – we spoke of everything. As I had never really debated anything with someone from our Northern Territories before, this was a huge eye opener for me – it was non stop learning in hearing her perspective on current events and on the realities of life in our largest riding (inclusive of one fifth of our nations landmass!). Of all the issues, however, I was most captivated by talks on geography, and hearing her explain just how rapidly their climate and natural surroundings have changed in the past 20 years and are continuing to change; of how their culture is so immersed with their physical landscape, how there lifestyle is tied to the seasons, and how their very way of life is being redefined by our melting Arctic. Among other things, I immediately thought back to some of the places I’ve been and began to realize that this is by no means an “away” phenomenon; that it is no longer a “future” event that might one day come to pass; that it is happening here and now in our very home, and for those who still aren’t believers – it is time.

It’s as if we are caught between two worlds here in Canada. On the one hand - with 90% of our population within a short drive of the US border, many of us will probably not be terribly inconvenienced by global warming in the short term. Heck – I don’t like the cold and definitely wasn’t suffering from our record warm January ’07. Farmers won’t complain about the longer growing season, and politicians and corporations are already salivating at the prospects of the opening up of the Northwest Passage. But while this is occurring many places are already having their fears realized and some heavily populated parts of the planet could well be in crises within our lifetimes. This bubble we are living in is shrinking fast, and once the novelty of these things wear off, the dots to connect will become clear. The weather will be more sporadic, the storms more intense, and our true north will melt away; additionally, humanitarian crises engulfing so much of the rest of the world may lead to a boom in immigration and asylum seeking to spacious countries (like ours) as has never occured before. To paraphrase some recent statements by Al Gore, Stephane Dion and Tony Blair: We no longer lack scientific clarity on the reality of global warming, and there are no shortages of practical steps we as humans can now take. We know exactly the types of things that we can do to help prevent the Armageddon scenarios that have been prophesied – but we are lacking political will, and for this tide to turn in a democracy, it must be demanded by the people. On this issue, we are no longer living in a time where our grandchildren will be able to makeup for our mistakes. We are living in a time of consequence.

Aerial photograph of two Maldivian islands, taken by Ron Gluckman

Looking back on the Ice Fields from Uhuru Peak, Mt Kilimanjaro, taken by me

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