Let me tell you the story of Hussein Abtu and Noor Nahar.
For a start, they have never met. Indeed, they could not live further apart, Hussein in Africa and Noor in Asia.
I first met Hussein some years ago in the remote Wollo region of northeastern Ethiopia, which was the epicentre of the famines that gripped that country in the 70s and 80s.
Hussein, a farmer ,was a broken man. A man who prayed for rain – not for his crops, which had already perished. Hussein prayed for rain to soften the concrete-hard earth so he could dig a grave for his baby daughter. So malnourished was Hussein’s wife she had been unable to feed their new-born daughter Merema. Now, she lay exhausted and anaemic inside their hut, grieving for the loss of her daughter and struggling for life herself. Outside, sat Hussein’s other children, flies settling on their faces, their hair thinning and stomachs beginning to bulge with malnutrition. “I would rather die quickly than starve slowly waiting for food,” I remember Tamima, one of his daughters, telling me as she sat listlessly drawing shapes in the dust. Hussein had always waited for the rains, but now they had failed again and all he could see were his crops withered through drought and the tell-tale signs of a terrible coming hunger.
A short time later, on the other side of the world, I met Noor Nahar. She too was waiting on the rains, but unlike Hussein she waited not in hope, but in fear. One of countless slum dwellers in the Bangladesh city of Dhaka, Noor is what has been dubbed an “environmental refugee”. A label that says nothing about the impact of the floods and rising sea levels that washed away her family farm leaving them now struggling to survive in Dhaka’s infamous Malek slum district.
Every day, the number of families like this grows as climate change, failing crops and the desperate hope of a new start drives countless rural dwellers into cities across the globe from Dhaka to Addis Ababa.
“Sometimes I pick waste paper, and get about 70 taka (50p) a day, but for the last two months I haven’t been able to work because the children have been sick,” Noor told me, as we sat in her claustrophobic hut perched on a precarious bamboo platform.
Just feet below us sloshed the brackish water which in the rainy season rises above the tops of the hut’s stilts, flooding the floors and tiny alleyways with dead vermin, human faeces and other refuse. With it comes disease; fevers, diarrhoea, dysentery, scabies and tuberculosis, which combined with malnourishment kill the weakest and most vulnerable among the very young and elderly.
Whether we like it or not, the lives of both Hussein and Noor, like countless millions of others like them, tell us the real human cost of climate change.
This is what the Copenhagen Summit should be about, if the wrangling, prevarication and stalemate can ever be parked long enough for some genuine commitment and progress to be achieved. Time, after all, is something that people like Hussein and Noor don’t have the luxury of. Only yesterday, Oxfam warned of how millions now face hardship after rains across swathes of East Africa failed for the sixth year in a row. Agencies like this have long warned that climate change along with poverty are the greatest threats to humanity this century. There remains of course a vociferous lobby out there who continue to argue the impossibility of stating definitively that impending famines in Africa or floods in Bangladesh are the result of climate change. But what is scientifically certain, is that shifts in weather patterns and the seasons have made life so much more difficult for subsistence farmers like Hussein and ensured sea levels continue to rise plaguing communities like Noor’s.
“It’s not an issue worth debating any more, and you cannot base decisions about the future of the human race on a 5% chance that the scientific consensus is wrong”, was how Professor Anthony Giddens, author of The Politics of Climate Change, put it at last summer’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.
We would do well to take Professor Giddens’ advice, not least if we are to ensure that the poorest people on the planet are given the resources to defend their lives and livelihoods rather than simply see their lands pillaged for all they are worth. I know it’s all too easy for journalists to quote as gospel the proclamations of scientists and aid workers.
To be honest, even I myself have become increasingly wary of what some harbingers of doom say from within the ranks of today’s aid industry.
But when it comes to the impact of climate change on the world’s poorest communities, the jury I believe is no longer out. Across the developing world the evidence is there to be seen and measured, while the lives of countless Husseins and Noors are changing for the worse as a result.
Despite this, for most of us, coming to terms with what Ethiopian farmers or Bangladeshi slum dwellers have to cope with daily remains an elusive thing. Their dire existences so often beyond our imagining. As a reporter returning from covering stories of these lives, I’ve often wished for some kind of Star Trek style transporter capable of beaming those friends and other interested parties back to where I’ve just come for a few moments.
Then the questions of should we or can we make a difference, would be answered in such a compelling way as to convince even the most hardened sceptic. After covering famine in Sudan some years ago, I remember the writer AA Gill telling of how he returned home to be questioned by his young daughter as to where he had been and what he had seen.
‘“Are they dying?’’ she asked. Yes, he replied.
“Where do they bury them? Where do they bury them?’’
“In Monday’s rubbish, in the commercial break, in the turned page and the changed subject at Sunday lunch and under the prune stones on the side of your plate,’’ was how Gill wrote his reply in an article.
It would be a travesty if decisions made in the Danish capital over the next few days also buried the burning issues climate change raises, along with those lives on which it impacts. Copenhagen... get on with what needs to be done.