Earth Day 2017: Blogs from the Wildlife Conservation Society

From Madagascar, A View of the Looming Climate Crisis

A Silky Sifika (Propithecus candidus) in Makira Natural Park. Credit: ©WCS.

By Alison Clausen
April 21, 2017

In most countries of the world climate change is an abstract concept. In cities and urban centers around the world its hard to fully care why its important that corals in Australia are turning white, to get more than mildly upset that butterflies in the UK are disappearing faster than ever before, or to get really concerned about the fact that Greenland’s largest glacier is likely to melt faster and for longer than previously thought.

There are many reasons for this — but mostly because it all seems so far away and the quantities that are mentioned seem so small — after all what’s a degree here or there, or a few millimeters more of water in our oceans, a few species less than before?

Youth conservation club discussing climate change solutions. Credit: ©WCS.

However in some countries, including Madagascar, people no longer have the luxury of ignoring climate change. In this Island country off the coast of Africa all the conditions for climate vulnerability exist: a poor and mostly coastal population that depends on natural resources for their survival; a weak government hit repeatedly by political instability that limits its ability to plan for the future and respond to emergencies; and a geographical position that ensures high physical exposure to extreme weather events like cyclones, floods, and droughts.

“The actions we take today can protect millions of people — from the smallest child in a Malagasy village to our own children in towns and cities around the world — from a looming catastrophe.”

Nearly 400,000 people in southern Madagascar are at risk of famine after three successive drought years. This past March the Category 4 Cyclone Enawo hit, killing 81 people that we know of — with many more still missing. Safe drinking water remains unavailable in many areas as disease outbreaks continue. The direct health and economic effects of these events are obvious, but there are equally sinister long-term impacts.

Wall mural painted on a school by local children in Makira Natural Park. Credit: ©WCS.

In some areas of drought-stricken southern Madagascar last year, school attendance dropped by nearly 25 percent as parents pulled their children out of school to help look for water, earn money, or simply forage for food.

In rural Madagascar, the average annual income is in the order of $US400 per person and where in some rural areas where WCS works only 10 percent of the adult population is literate. However, one thing that always strikes me when I work with these local communities is the extremely high level of knowledge and concern about climate change. Even in many of the most isolated villages where WCS works, children and adults alike understand that global warming is making their lives harder.

Youth in Maroantsetra and surrounding villages in northeast Madagascar who are involved in WCS’s environmental education programs are passionate advocates for combating climate change. The junior reporters club makes radio broadcasts while others write blog posts and suggest solutions to the climate challenges. Children use art to express how climate change has affected their lives.

Local fishermen,_Antongil Bay. Credit: ©Ranariniaina Johnnah.

In the marine zones in southwest and northwest Madagascar where WCS manages marine protected areas, Malagasy scientists are undertaking surveys to see how corals are reacting to rising temperatures, and fishermen talk with great knowledge about the changes to fish populations and catch in relation to water temperature. Women in these areas are starting vegetable gardens and have invested in fish drying ovens to supplement household income.

My discussions with local populations on this issue are tinged with a sense of frustration. People know very well that all they can do is try to adapt even as a sense of unfairness is unavoidable in a nation disproportionately impacted by global actions speeding climate change. Madagascar’s citizens emit 0.1 tons / person / year of greenhouse gases; US citizens emit 164 times more.

“One thing that always strikes me when I work with local communities is the extremely high level of knowledge and concern about climate change.”

Nevertheless, they have not given up and their level of engagement and desire to learn about and understand climate change should be a lesson for us all. Citizens of countries in which a change in behavior can have the greatest impact should be humbled by their engagement. The actions we take today can protect millions of people — from the smallest child in a Malagasy village to our own children in towns and cities around the world — from a looming catastrophe.

Inauguration of Ankivonjy Marine Protected Area. Credit: A. Brenier/WCS.

The theme of this year’s Earth Day is climate literacy and it is one that we should all take to heart. It might seem abstract. It might seem complicated. With greater knowledge comes no small risk of despondency. Yet we cannot turn away. All of us with the opportunity to do something about climate change have an obligation to learn more about this challenge facing the world.

I implore you on this Earth Day to take 10 minutes out of your day and read an article on climate change, talk to your kids, discuss it with your friends, and pass along the message that the time to react is now.

We can no longer stick our heads in the sand and hope or pretend that the rapidly changing climate and its attendant impacts are not happening or will correct themselves. Indeed if we, with all our resources and blessings, don’t dedicate ourselves to addressing this impending crisis we will only have ourselves to blame.

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Alison Clausen is the Madagascar and Western Indian Ocean Director for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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