What if dealing with climate change meant more than a flick of a switch? Would our friends in the industrialized world think differently if the effects of climate change were worse than extended summer months and the arrival of exotic species? Cushioned and cosseted, they have had the luxury of closing their minds to the real impact of what is happening in the fragile and precious atmosphere that surrounds the planet we live on. Where climate change has occurred in the industrialized world, the effects have so far been relatively benign. With the exception of events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the inhabitants of North America and Europe have felt just a gentle caress from the winds of change.
I wonder how much more anxious they might be if they depended on the cycle of mother nature to feed their families. How much greater would their concerns be if they lived in slums and townships, in mud houses, or shelters made of plastic bags? In large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, this is a reality. The poor, the vulnerable and the hungry are exposed to the harsh edge of climate change every day of their lives.
The melting of the snows on the peak of Kilimanjaro is a warning of the changes taking place in Africa. Across this beautiful but vulnerable continent, people are already feeling the change in the weather. But rain or drought, the result is the same: more hunger and more misery for millions of people living on the margins of global society. Even in places such as Darfur, climate change has played a role. In the semi-arid zones of the world, there is fierce competition for access to grazing lands and watering holes. Where water is scarce and populations are growing, conflict will never be far behind.
In so many of the countries where the poorest live, governments are ill-equipped to cope. Katrina was a challenge for the US, so why should we be surprised that the annual cyclone season off the east coast of Africa continues to stretch the governments of Mozambique and Madagascar to their limits? Where governments are weak, the reliance on humanitarian agencies is greater.
People who work for bodies such as the UN World Food Program are finding their work is a humanitarian "growth industry". Indeed, the numbers of people who know what it's like to go hungry stands at more than 850 million, and they are still growing by almost 4 million a year. The increasing frequency of natural disasters makes the fight against hunger even more challenging. The World Bank estimates that the number of natural disasters has quadrupled from 100 a year in 1975 to 400 in 2005.
In the past 10 years, 2.6 billion people have suffered from natural disasters. That is more than a third of the global population - most of them in the developing world. The human impact is obvious, but what is not so apparent is the extent to which climatic events can undo the developmental gains put in place over decades. Droughts and floods destroy lives, but they also destroy schools, economies and opportunity.
Every child will remember the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. In the world we live in, the bad wolf of climate change has already ransacked the straw house and the house made of sticks, and the inhabitants of both are knocking on the door of the brick house where the people of the developed world live. Our friends there should think about this the next time they reach for the thermostat switch. They should realize that while the problems of the Mozambican farmer might seem far away, it may not be long before their troubles wash up on their shores.
Desmond Tutu is a former archbishop of Cape Town and a Nobel peace laureate.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007