First Person Blog

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Leaf blowers and climate change doubters

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Ketele Pond serves as a source of drinking water for herding famlies in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
Ketele Pond serves as a source of drinking water for herding famlies in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

When I saw the headline in the New York Times yesterday morning—“Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons”—the first thing that popped into my head was a man I had encountered as I left work on a recent evening: He was one of the doubters, I’m sure of it, one of those who question (or, more likely, never even considered) the idea that us humans are helping to heat the planet up unnaturally fast.

How else do you explain the absurdity of trying to clear gravel off a path with an energy-guzzling leaf blower? That’s what the man was doing outside the rail station, creeping along inch by inch, his machine roaring louder than the rush hour traffic on the highway next to us as he tried to blast the sharp little chunks out of the way of commuters so they wouldn’t trip (and sue?) as they raced to catch their trains home.

The chunks barely budged. But he persisted.

What was he thinking?

Not that a broom would do a better job. Not that reckless energy use could be hastening our demise. And not about the cover story in this month’s National Geographic on Greenland, dubbed “ground zero for global warming.” In some places, its ice sheet is up to two miles thick, but it’s shrinking fast—the story says Greenland is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world—and if the ice sheet disappears entirely, it will cause the sea level to rise by 24 feet, drowning coasts around the globe.

Nor was the gravel guy thinking about Ketele Pond—not that I would expect him to. Few people have heard of Ketele Pond, the source of drinking water for hundreds of herding families in southern Ethiopia who are facing increasingly harsh living conditions as climate change brings unpredictable weather. When other supplies dry up, women will walk up to six hours a day to fetch water from Ketele Pond. Murky as it is, the water is still precious—and frighteningly vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. Recently, as my colleague Anna Kramer reported, a severe rain storm caused a breach in the pond, allowing the much-needed water to rush out and disappear into the sandy soil of the bush. What will those families do now?

That’s the question we should be asking, not the dismissive one about how cold the winter was in London.

What now for people who are already struggling with the effects of climate change—with the droughts that kill their crops season after season,  the floods that pollute their drinking water, and the intense coastal storms that flatten their houses and wreck their businesses?

The roar of the leaf blower, and all it represents, can’t drown out that question. And I have to hope that even doubters will someday hear it—and take action.

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