Somalia shows horrifying realities of climate change, but who is looking?

World View: Ireland’s emissions 54 times higher than those of Horn of Africa country

“We are Somalis, we’ve undergone 30 years of conflict. Our problem is of our own making,” said Abdukadir Abdi Ahmed as he appealed for help. The man stood surrounded by hundreds of people who had been displaced by drought. On the outskirts of the camp were hundreds of carcasses of animals that had perished from hunger and thirst. Nearby was a river that periodically dried up completely, forcing hundreds of people to dig holes in the river bed to search for groundwater to drink or wash.

What Ahmed said wasn’t true, of course. Somalia has had three consecutive failed rainy seasons, in a worsening of an already extreme climate that experts say is directly related to climate change. Six million people are in need of food and 81,000 are already said to be experiencing a famine. An unknown number have died already – while many displaced people told me of spouses or relatives who died en route to displacement camps, those deaths were impossible to verify.

The temperature of the Horn of Africa country – which hit 40 degrees while I was there – is expected to rise three degrees this century. When rains do come, they are irregular and expected to become more extreme.

In Somalia's last famine, in 2011, a quarter of a million people died in one of the worst manners imaginable

Neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia are suffering, too. In Ethiopia an estimated 7.2 million people are going hungry in the country’s south and southeast, according to the World Food Programme, which calls this the most severe drought since 1981. In Kenya the programme says the number of people in need of assistance has risen more than fourfold in less than two years. Some 3.1 million people are in crisis levels of food insecurity.

Expert Alex De Waal, who analyses the causes of famines, said climate change had played a large role in Somalia’s last famine, in 2011, when a quarter of a million people died in one of the worst manners imaginable.

Insulated rich

These impacts are hard to describe to people in rich countries, which are more insulated against the most immediate implications of climate change. Yet it is wealthy countries that are largely responsible for global emissions.

Somalia has more than three times the population of Ireland, at 16.3 million. Yet, in 2018 – the last year World Bank figures were available – Ireland produced nearly 54 times more emissions. That’s an improvement on 2006, when Ireland produced more than 82 times more.

This is true of other vulnerable developing countries, too.

Afghanistan – where a humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by recent drought – was ranked as the sixth-most-affected country in the world by climate change in 2019. It has roughly eight times the population of Ireland, but Ireland produced nearly five times more emissions in 2018, and nearly 24 times more in 2006.

'Prior to the crisis in Ukraine the world was already facing a humanitarian crisis of almost unparalleled dimensions ... very much driven by climate change'

The Maldives, the world’s lowest-lying country, risks being overwhelmed completely by the sea as water levels rise. Though it has about a tenth of Ireland’s population, Ireland produced more than 19 times its emissions in 2018, down from 55 times its emissions in 2006. “We are paying with our lives for the carbon someone else emitted,” said Mohamed Nasheed, a former president of the Maldives, last year.

“Individuals with high socio-economic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions,” said the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was released this month. The goal of stopping global warming at 1.5 degrees is aspirational, given that 1.1 degrees of warming has already taken place. To achieve it, emissions must peak by 2025, and should be nearly halved by the end of this decade, the IPCC says. But that will require a huge effort by governments, corporations and regular citizens.

Privileged inertia

In Ireland, the feeling that the climate crisis is not urgent is a privilege as well as a challenge to activists who have been raising awareness of this for decades.

Others also struggle with the feeling of inertia. This year Irish charity Trócaire decided to raise money for Zimbabwe – where people are suffering under the effects of both climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic – for their annual Lenten appeal. Yet staff worried those efforts would be overshadowed by the Ukraine war and other disasters around the world that can feel more immediate and more real to the average Irish person.

“The Ukraine crisis has triggered a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe, increasing the cost of food and fuel globally, but also diverting international funds,” said Caoimhe de Barra, Trócaire’s chief executive. “Prior to the crisis in Ukraine the world was already facing a humanitarian crisis of almost unparalleled dimensions ... very much driven by climate change.”

Thursday marked Ireland’s Earth Overshoot Day – the day on which international research organisation the Global Footprint Network calculates that the Earth’s annual resources would have been exhausted if all citizens across the globe consumed the way Irish people do. “India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and many others don’t overshoot at all,” tweeted Green Party councillor Cristíona Kiely, sharing the news on Twitter. “When people try to use richer/bigger countries as a reason why we can’t do more in Ireland to fight climate change, they forget that we are one of the richer countries.”

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