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Let’s Get Our Head’s Out of the Polar Bears’ Asses — Climate Change and People

I know I pick on the polar bears. They are the popular kids in the environmental movement hogging up all the airtime, looking all forlorn and needy on their ice flows. I see lots of images of these creamy white desperate bears displayed as an example of how climate change is already happening. What I have barely seen are the images of flood victims in Malawi.


Malawians evacuated after devastating floods in late January wait out another deluge at a makeshift shelter. Roughly 175,000 people have been displaced and crops were destroyed by what the country’s president says is the worst flooding in its history. Credit: Sam Eaton.

During the last two months the worst floods in over 50 years displaced 230,000 people in the African nation of Malawi destroying homes, fields and livestock. In Malawi right now parents, spouses, children, and friends are morning the loss of over 270 people. Many schools are also destroyed. And while the floods have ended for now, citizens struggle to get clean water to drink and basic food supplies.

Did climate change cause these floods? Sam Eaton, from the radio program, The World, has done a stellar job reporting on the floods and their aftermath. He explains:

The causes of the disaster are a complex mix, including those torrential rains, of high population density and deforestation. In the Shire river watershed, the hillsides have been completely deforested for cooking fuel, among other things, so there’s nothing to stop the huge amounts of rainfall from surging into the valleys.

Climate change may also be involved. The intensity of the storm system behind the floods fits with what climate models have been projecting could happen as carbon emissions trap more energy in the atmosphere. These storms can have devastating effects on poor countries like Malawi, where many families live in simple mud brick homes and farm land that can’t withstand this kind of weather.

from The Flood of the Half Century You Probably Haven’t Heard About (with audio)

Today many citizens and leaders in Malawi are working hard to survive the floods and look after each other.  The Journal of the Turkish Weekly published an article, Malawi Flood Survivors Slowly Pick Up Their Lives and highlights some of the challenges:

Thousands of grass-thatched homes built by villagers have been swept away by the floods.
Agriculture and education have been the most affected, with over 181 schools being occupied by the displaced, affecting the education of over 300,000 children.
“Our schools are flooded; the classrooms are full of mud,” said Losha, head teacher at Chikonje Primary School.
“This whole area was flooded. Now we will have to remove the dirt by hand, so that learning in classrooms can start again,” he told AA in an empty classroom half filled with sand and mud.
“We also must rebuild our lives,” he added.

Some of the nearly 250,000 Malawians displaced by recent flooding in the southern part of the country sit for a photo at a school where they've taken refuge. Far from the epicenter of international flood relief efforts, the 4,220 people in this isolated camp face hunger and disease. Credit: Sam Eaton

Some of the nearly 250,000 Malawians displaced by recent flooding in the southern part of the country sit for a photo at a school where they’ve taken refuge. Far from the epicenter of international flood relief efforts, the 4,220 people in this isolated camp face hunger and disease. Credit: Sam Eaton

Kate Seymour and Erin Law writing for All Africa report on the projects citizens including clergy have taken up to respond to the crisis brought on by the flooding:

Local pastor and Malawi Red Cross Society volunteer, Isaac Joseph has been working hard to ensure that the immense damage done to water and sanitation facilities does not impact the health of his community. Together with other community-based volunteers, Joseph is helping to construct new latrine facilities and hand washing stations.

Following the floods, Joseph and members of his community were able to reassess their priorities relating to health, water and sanitation using strategies and processes they had learned during their community-based health and first aid training. Together, the community decided that their post-flood priorities were latrine coverage, preventing malaria transmission from stagnant water, and re-establishing gardens that had washed away. Joseph’s training has also helped him to construct tippy-taps, which are plastic jerry-cans or water bottles suspended on a rope that can be made to tip and pour water, thanks to a wooden foot pedal, for hygienic hand-washing.

Looking ahead, the conversation has also opened up to consider how to address over population in the region. Sam Eaton reports about a Muslim community that is having frank discussions about contraception, something many of the village women want but cannot easily access. The chief of a village in Mbosa, Sheikh Mosa, is also speaking out in favor of family planning.

A village chief in Malawi, Sheikh Mosa, is trying to persuade other chiefs in his area to support family planning.  Credit: Sam Eaton

A village chief in Malawi, Sheikh Mosa, is trying to persuade other chiefs in his area to support family planning. Credit: Sam Eaton

Mosa’s village has been leading the family planning push in this part of Malawi. It formed a mother’s support group that spreads the message of modern contraception and smaller family sizes through words and song. The group also rescues girls from child marriage and teenage pregnancy, ensuring they stay in school — all without a penny of outside financial support.

They’re doing this not because someone is telling them to, or paying them to, but because, as Mosa says, their future depends on it.

Sosten Chiotha, Southern Africa regional director for the sustainable development NGO, LEAD, says climate change and population growth in Malawi are not separate issues.

“I think maybe 20 years ago, they may not have been interested in these linkages because the population was low … the land was still fertile, there were still a lot of forests. So I think there was not so much pressure then to try and understand. But now they do understand,” he says.

The problem, Chiotha says, is that Malawi’s people lack access to family planning services. Malawi is a country that, for the three decades leading up to the mid 1990s, banned not only birth control but sex education and even miniskirts, thanks to the conservative beliefs of then-president Hastings Banda.

from Sam Eaton’s piece, ‘God Commanded’ family planning, says this Muslim leader in flood-ravaged Malawi.

Reports of these floods in Malawi and the ways local community members are responding have barely made it in the mainstream press and are absent from environmental reports about climate change. While Americans obsess over climate deniers, stories like these out of Malawi get overlooked.

Brentin Mock in a searing piece for Grist entitled, It’s hard to worry about polar bears when Malawi is flooding RIGHT NOW, refocuses the climate discussion onto humans and immediate needs. Quoting  Janani Balasubramanian, from her piece, “Why Climate Change is a Human Rights Violation,” for Fusion, Brentin drives the point home.

Her opening sentence alone probably melted a few polar caps in the past few hours: “The rise in sea levels isn’t a coincidence or an act of God – it’s a man-made weapon.”

That’s a hell of a statement, something like a caption for Beasts of the Southern Wild. And she takes it even further, saying, “Sea level rise is a type of ‘natural’ weaponry generated through the domination of water and air by specific world powers.”

Let her explain:

The framing here is key: understanding the rise in sea levels as solely an environmental phenomenon prompts us to try to save polar bears and ocean water. Understanding sea level rise as a weapon makes us wonder ‘who’s pulling the trigger?’ and ‘who designed the gun?’

This concept of climate change as a weapon wielded against the poor is not something we are likely to hear in the mainstream environmentalist movements, organizations that bemoan the fact they they cannot attract people of color to their events. But without seeing the connections to poverty, racial inequity–particularly when it comes to pollution and disaster relief–and climate change, these environmentalist group present the “environment” as that place where one goes hiking, not where one must survive. Brentin Mock makes the connections in his piece:

As I wrote recently, nothing clears out communities like climate change. I don’t know if the floods, or the rising seas, are a “weapon” used against the poor. It’s likely more collateral damage from industrialized nations at war with themselves over how to grow wealthier. But what I think doesn’t matter. When you read in PRI about these people stranded in Malawi, climbing on top of termite mounts, crocodiles circling them in the water as they wait for helicopters or boats to rescue them, you can’t help but think of them as victims of weapons of injustice. You can’t help but think of similar scenarios of people in New Orleans after the levees broke, stranded on roofs, with law enforcement officials pointing guns at those seeking higher, dryer ground.

Brentin Mock ends his piece with a brilliant tie-in to the polar bears in Alaska. It is not about being insensitive to their plight, but to broaden the lens and see the connections to how we treat each other. Sure I pick on the polar bears. I do it because it is time to refocus the discussion–not to exclude the many animals facing extinction–but to include humans, our communities, our cultures, our lives in the discussion, especially those who are most affected by climate change right now.


Author: Peterson Toscano

Peterson Toscano is a quirky queer Quaker concerned about Climate Change. His website is

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