Ask any Ugandan, and they’ll tell you what some US politicians haven’t figured out: the climate is already changing here. The rainy seasons don’t come when they’re supposed to, making it hard for farmers to plan when to plant their crops. The days and nights seem hotter than in the past. Old farmers’ weather wisdom doesn’t seem to apply anymore. In a country in which nearly 90% of the population earns its living from agriculture, changes in the seasons induced by global warming would be disastrous.
It’s a cruel twist of fate that the people who have contributed least to global warming—and benefited the least from fossil fuels—are going to suffer from it the most. Global warming’s worst effects will occur in the world’s poorest regions, as droughts turn farmland to desert, hotter temperatures melt glaciers that hundreds of millions of people rely on for drinking water, and unpredictable weather makes famines more likely. Experts estimate that global warming is already killing 300,000 people per year – 90% of them in the developing world. This number will jump to 500,000 per year by 2030. The Economist reports:
The task of providing for hungry and thirsty people will be complicated by climate change… The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thinks Africa will be the continent hardest hit. Even its best-case scenario (an increase in global temperatures of 1.1-2.9°C by 2100) could be ruinous. Equatorial glaciers will melt and river-flows fall, even as demand for water rises. The United Nations Environment Programme says 75m-250m Africans could go thirsty… On some estimates, an area of cultivable land the size of France, Germany, Italy and Britain combined will be ruined. The International Livestock Research Institute says large parts of Africa may soon be too dry for grazing, leading to conflicts between rival cattle herders or, as in Sudan’s Darfur region, between herders and settled farmers.
If you’re still skeptical that human activity is warming the planet, you don’t need to trust an African farmer: now there’s a study funded by the oil industry (by the Tea Party favorite Charles Koch Foundation no less), summarized in the Wall Street Journal, that found that indeed, global temperatures are rising just as fast as scientists have been telling us (about 1.6 degrees F over the last 50 years). Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the study’s author (and former skeptic) Dr. Muller explains:
When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.
Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.
So global warming is real, and already being felt in Africa so strongly that your simplest farmer knows it’s going on. But what do we do about it? Skeptics have long argued that restrictions on fossil fuels will make it difficult for the world’s poor to lift themselves out of poverty. The West relied on fossil fuels for our own development, so why deny the poor the same chance?
Indeed, Africa has to develop, and much development is already underway. Ugandans’ demand for electricity already outstrips the country’s capacity to produce it, forcing the government to ration power. As a result, those who can afford it have turned to heavily polluting diesel generators to fill the gap during blackouts. To meet electricity needs, do we need to expand access to fossil fuels?
The answer is a resounding no, because there’s a better way forward: solar. In the US, solar has a reputation for being more expensive than grid electricity. But in Africa, so many people use expensive kerosene or diesel for power that solar is actually much cheaper than fossil fuels. As I’ve mentioned before, one kerosene lamp can cost over $5o per year to operate, compared to less than $20 for a ToughStuff solar lamp.
Moreover, solar for homes does not require massive investment in infrastructure for transmission and distribution. As one government minister told me, “for individuals, solar may be expensive, but for the government solar is cheap.”
One billion people in the West did enough damage to the environment using fossil fuels to make ourselves rich. The world cannot survive another 6 billion people in the developing world doing the same thing. ToughStuff and other solar companies are working to ensure that as Africa develops and uses more energy, it doesn’t contribute to global warming further in the way the West has done. Africa needs energy: let’s make sure it’s clean.