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Why care about COP18?

With the annual spectacle of the UN Climate Change Conference (this year it’s COP18, in Qatar) kicking off on 26 November, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of exactly what is at stake. 

Our concern about climate change is prone to fluctuate. Recent polls show that many people in Western countries have become steadily less concerned about climate change over the last few years. It may be wishful thinking to hope that tropical storm Sandy will make any lasting difference to this. With so few signs of progress internationally, even committed activists could be forgiven for losing some drive or being tempted to focus on other seemingly more winnable issues. As someone who has worked on climate change for the last eight years I have myself struggled at times to remain motivated.

Part of the problem is that the worst impacts of climate change tend to always be in the future and in distant places. It is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for many of us. While we may know rationally that climate change is a big deal, the threat can often feel abstract and theoretical. Other issues which impact our everyday lives more directly, such as the financial crisis, can appear more urgent.

This is perhaps why a recent trip to some farming communities in the highlands of Bolivia proved to be such a powerful reminder for me of just what is at stake. For the communities that live on the steep slopes of Illimani, Bolivia’s second-highest mountain, the impacts of climate change are already a reality.

BertaIn recent years local people have had to contend with the arrival of new pests and diseases and the increased frequency of hail storms which destroy their young crops. Most worrying is the melting of Illimani’s glaciers, which for five months of the year (including during the crucial planting season) are the main water source. The small Sajhuaya River brings the melt water cascading down from high above before it is channelled into a system of irrigation channels. The local people, such as Berta Mamani (right) from the Cellubollu community, fear for the future. ‘Lots of things are happening here,’” she tells me, ‘but our biggest worry is Illimani, as we live from that. Illimani is everything. Little by little it is melting away.’

It is alarming to think that these impacts are already so apparent with global temperatures having risen barely 0.8°C since pre-industrial times. The current trajectory of global emissions puts us in line for a four-degree, or even six-degree increase this century. With such extreme levels of warming it is doubtful that much of Illimani’s glaciers would survive.  

With everyone here almost completely reliant on what they grow to eat and sell, the loss of these glaciers poses nothing less than an existential threat to their way of life. Many people here fear they will be forced to abandon their farms and communities and move to the crowded cities of La Paz and El Alto. ‘The people will go to the city. They will migrate because there won’t be anything to work with. With what are we going to survive?’ asks Hugo Gutierrez from the Granja community.

The local people I speak with are not well versed in the science of climate change or the details of international negotiations, but they are worried by the changes they see and those that they fear may be on the way. Quite literally, everything they have is now at risk and they find themselves at the mercy of other people’s decisions and actions, over which they have no control. They hope that those in distant countries, for whom climate change is not such an immediate concern, do not forget what is at stake. Those most vulnerable to climate change may be out of sight for most of us, but they must not be left out of mind.  

Ben Castle is a researcher on climate change issues for the Democracy Center in Bolivia. He has worked previously as a climate change policy adviser for a range of UK government agencies and think tanks. He holds an MSc in Climate Change and Development from the Institute of Development Studies.

Look out for a follow-up blog from Ben in December, when he will look at the role of adaptation to climate change in Bolivia. He will ask whether the rise of the adaptation agenda within international negotiations gives cause for optimism for vulnerable communities or whether, as many Bolivian campaigners suspect, it offers false hope.  

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