Does the United States care?

The effects of climate change reverberate throughout Africa


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As I was cruising around New Hampshire in my shiny new Chevy Bolt and proudly proclaiming the merits of solar-powered electric transportation, I received an unexpected message from South Africa. An old friend by the name of Nkwame had seen my recent writings on clean energy and wondered about the availability of solar power to combat poverty and unemployment in South Africa.

“When is it coming down to south?” he wondered.

I responded with my customary optimism that solar and wind have the potential to create millions of middle-class jobs and offset all 368 million tons of annual carbon pollution emitted by South Africa’s coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuels — not to mention extending electricity to the 7.7 million poor South Africans who still are disconnected from the grid. I suggested Nkwame find a local solar company and begin installing the panels in his community, one roof at a time.

Then I came back down to earth. Recalling the time my wife and I spent living in her native land, and the trips I regularly took into South African townships while working for democratic reforms with Nkwame, I had to acknowledge a pair of fundamental flaws in my idea. 

First, the homes (if they can be called homes at all) in which South Africa’s poorest people currently live, lack not only electricity and plumbing — most lack solid roofs to support solar panels, never mind protect their inhabitants from weather extremes fueled by climate change.

Second, South Africa and the continent at large are still awaiting the kind of foreign investment and technology transfers necessary to take clean energy to scale (on rooftops or otherwise).

Although South Africa is rich in sun and wind, the up-front costs of shutting down its many coal-fired power plants and building a vast new network of clean power generation are too great for a developing country to undertake without support from outside — preferably from those most responsible for the climate crisis. 

After patiently hearing my thoughts, Nkwame got real. What he needed from me was not more promotion of solar power and my new EV, but help launching a small-scale self-reliance project to make ends meet. Together with some of the unemployed youth he mentors, Nkwame had already begun constructing simple furniture items to sell in the local community, a response to South Africa’s sky-high unemployment and the raft of social challenges it brings. 

A few drills and saws would go a long way to accelerating their work, and perhaps make it possible to someday build real homes — homes that give shelter from storms and power from the sun. Talk about self-reliance.

What he needs from my government in Washington is something more than drills and saws. He needs us to lead — not renounce — the Paris climate accord and join the rest of the world in cutting carbon emissions, while also helping poor countries adapt to global warming through the Green Climate Fund. 

Nkwame’s conundrum, and that of more than 1 billion people in poor countries who are the biggest victims of our carbon binge, puts President Trump’s decision on Paris in a new light. Not only do scientists and economists uniformly agree that retreating from global progress on climate change is a mistake for the United States, the president’s decision also betrays a lack of basic humanity. It violates a fundamental principle of international engagement known as “do no harm.”

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, developed countries like our own have done considerable harm to Africa and the planet through our unfettered consumption of dirty fossil fuels. Although the days of government-sanctioned slave ships and colonial occupation are gone, the 16.4 metric tons of annual carbon pollution released by each American — far more than any other nation — disproportionately contribute to devastating droughts and desertification, crop failures and famine and mass dislocation of “climate refugees” across the Global South. 

Small wonder that climate change has been called the greatest security threat of the 21st century by our military leaders. It is also the greatest test of our humanity.

For a case in point, look no further than the deadly drought that has plagued southern and eastern Africa since 2015.

With dams down 73 percent below their normal levels, once-fertile fields in Nkwame’s Western Cape Province are now filled with wasted crops and scorched patches of earth. The UN estimates that around 40 million people are food-insecure across the region, including 580,000 children in need of treatment for severe malnutrition. Meanwhile, scientists at the US Geological Survey credit the drought’s severity to man-made climate change. 

Which leads to a simple question: Do we care? 

Do we care about our planet and people like Nkwame whom we have harmed? Do we care about our children and grandchildren who stand to inherit an earth that is increasingly incapable of supporting human life? Do we care about our economic future as a nation and the next industrial revolution in clean energy technology that awaits? Do we care about our moral standing in the world?

President Trump has made his position clear. Now it’s up to us to respond. 

Dan Weeks of Nashua is a director at ReVision Energy.

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