The privilege to act for climate

On one our last days in South Africa, the thirteen of us were asked to perform holiday deliveries of excess food and clothing to local communities. We were with a local orphanage, or “children’s trust,” that wanted help distributing their excess donations. We agreed without hesitation, but we found ourselves in the middle of an entirely unexpected situation.

We spent the afternoon driving to isolated locations in the middle of poor black South African communities handing out “holiday” donations. As we stood behind the vans holding boxes of shoes and handing individuals bread and samp, each one of us experienced different, yet similar, moments of shock, reality, empathy, and humility. We realized how much we have compared to the rest of the world, how much we take advantage of, and how much we have to give.

I was in South Africa as part of the Dickinson Global Mosaic on Climate Change. Thirteen students and two professors spent the semester learning about climate change and international relations. We then headed out to the city of Durban, South Africa, for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 17th Conference of the Parties (a really long name, I know; we call it the UNFCCC’s COP17). After the conference, we headed out to the countryside to do service work for the orphanage. After a semester of preparation and two weeks in Durban talking to international delegates, non-governmental organization representatives, and other involved people, I had learned a lot about climate change, about how it is affecting people in vulnerable countries, and also why countries have a hard time agreeing.

The line at the distribution spot.

It was discouraging to me, yet not unexpected, that little of substance emerged from the conference itself. I knew going in what disagreements there would be between developing and developed countries and the gridlock they would cause, but it wasn’t until the day of the distribution that I felt that discouragement. I found myself looking around and asking:, when people are living like this, how can we expect to prioritize our environment? Suddenly environmentalism felt pretentious to me, like it was an issue only affluent people had the privilege to worry about.

But then I thought back to the conference, to the words of the Minister of the Maldives, to the words of the Kenyan and Ethiopian citizens to whom I spoke; I thought back to what I learned this semester, to the videos of Himalayan flooding, to the research I did on failing agriculture in India, to the plight of Native Americans who are losing to climate change. That was when I realized that the poverty surrounding me in Africa is exactly what is preventing climate action: it is the primary, more immediate priority but it is also exactly why climate action is necessary.

If we don’t do something about climate change, this poverty will be more prevalent and uncontrollable; it will get worse instead of better. There is a new sector of refugees that will continue to grow: those from climate- related disasters. Climate change includes all sectors of human suffering, which is exactly why it is hard to tackle and exactly why it is necessary; and for this reason, climate change has become “my issue,” what I now strive to educate people about and mobilize people for. I will advocate for climate justice for those who cannot fight for it themselves precisely because I have the privilege to do so.

Check out the trip blog for other students’ perspectives:

From: Emily Bowie ’14
Published: March 4, 2012