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Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist, editor, and blogger covering the environment, technology, science, and sustainability. She reported on the Copenhagen climate talks on behalf of Oxfam America.
The main reason I’m excited to come to Copenhagen to attend these climate treaty talks is that Oxfam America has asked me to report with an “outsider’s perspective” on the stories of the climate witnesses.
These men and women from around the world live in communities already experiencing the consequences of the changing climate. Yesterday I met two of them for the first time.
Constance Okollet, 45, is a peasant farmer from Uganda, and the founder of the Osukura United Women’s Network, a regional community organizing and aid group. She and her husband have five sons and two daughters, ranging in ages from 10 to 25 years old.
Around 2007, she says, the two growing seasons per year that she and her village were accustomed to became unstable. Now unpredictable floods and droughts have destroyed the agricultural cycle they depended upon for their own food and their livelihoods. “We don’t know when to plant, when to harvest, whether we’ll harvest or not,” says Okollet.
“Now we’re just gambling with the agriculture,” she says, and her once self-sufficient community is going hungry, struggling for wage labor, and accepting government food aid. “We used to feed the government with our food,” Okollet says. Now it’s the reverse.
According to Okollet, selling produce once paid for all the village’s basic needs, such as medicine, schooling for their children. Now parents like her struggle to come up with the fees to educate their children beyond the mandatory, state-funded elementary grades.
I asked Okollet why she’s come to the climate treaty talks. “I come to this meeting, first of all to share my stories with many people, since the whole world is here,” she answered.
“I also came to talk to the world leaders, to help us, to stop damaging our lives. They should stop or reduce the emissions.
“They should have some funds for us, atl least to adapt to climate change, since the rich countries are the one’s who caused all this by polluting so much. At least we can have some funds for us to adapt to the changes.
“And maybe to seek justice: we want justice.”
Shorbanu Khatun, 33 years old, was also a farmer. Khatun has three sons and a daughter ranging from 6 to 21 years old. She spoke with me via an interpreter.
A villager in the southern coastal area of Bangladesh, Khatun and her husband had three acres of land where they grew vegetables and rice, had fruit trees, and pond for fish. The first sign of climate change impacts came about 14-15 years ago, as seawater encroched into her community’s farm fields.
As the soil became too saline (salt-laden) to grow crops, they lost their harvest for two or three consectuvie years.
Khatun’s husband turned to honey-gathering in a nearby forest to earn money. While in the forest one day, he was killed by a tiger.
Khatun, now a “tiger widow,” states her husband’s family held this misfortune against her. “They started torturing me,” she says, and ultimately threw her and the children out of the house. “That way, increasing salinity has caused me to lose everything,” Khatun says. She had to return to living with her own parents, and earned a living catching fish from the river, collecting firewood, and working as a household domestic. Eventually she re-established herself.
But May 2009’s Cyclone Ayla submerged and destroyed her home and village. “That washed away everything I had,” she says. “Actually on that day I was cooking food for my children. Suddenly the water came, and washed away my mud house. I along with my children was floating over the roof…I lost my consciousness. I was rescued and regained my consciousness after two days.” Khatun says that she and her children are now living on an embankment.
They are among the 35-40 thousand people left homeless in the wake of massive floodwaters created by the cyclone. (This is the sort of unusually intense and destructive storm that scientists have long predicted as a consequence of climate change.)
Like Okolet, Khatun’s family was self-sufficient before the impacts of the changing climate washed that life away. She talks about that life with lively energy, and about what’s come since with frustration and anger — particularly when told there are Americans who argue that global warming isn’t real, or believe that destitute people like herself are using it as an excuse to take money from industrial countries.
“I have lost everything, and that’s why I have come here,” Khatun says. “You are telling me Bangladesh is poor, that is why I have come here to seek money from you. Then what else can I say?”
To suspend my reporter’s cool for just a moment, I must admit that the stories of these “climate witnesses” will probably be among the most compelling, but challenging, that I’ve yet worked on.
The matter at hand here in Copenhagen — whether nations will do enough to stop or slow global warming, and how to help the poorer peoples of the world who are on the front line of the changing climate — requires just the sort of objectivity and devotion to accurate facts that both journalism and science are supposed to provide.
But the stories of people like Okollet and Khatun render the chilly distance of a phrase like “the impacts of climate change” near-meaningless. How to strike a balance between their stories, and the dry, day-in-day-out political and economic haggling going on at the international climate negotiations?