World Without WaterI’ve had the fortune to have spent some quality time with some Nobel Prize winners in recent years – most notably sharing a conference with Al Gore in Montreal and a delightful dinner with Muhammad Yunus in Toronto. Though they are real people, I felt dwarfed by their commitment, intelligence, and sheer accomplishment.

But of all those “Nobel” folks, I am the proudest of one of London’s own. Gordon McBean is the Director for the Centre for Environment and Sustainability as well as for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, and won his Nobel Prize as part of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). He is forever on the move to the various continents, assessing the damages from environmental degradation and attempting to get the attention of world policy makers. He meets with presidents, tin-pot dictators, prime ministers, government ministers and fellow scientists. But he is also an educator and yesterday morning he met with Masters students, bringing his vast knowledge of global environmental changes and challenges to students in his hometown. When he invited me to share the lecture with him, I recall thinking “What? … Me?” He’s way out of my league and has the recognition to prove it. But since his thinking was that I speak about how climate change affects the average African, I agreed his request. It was an honour that I hardly deserved.

The first part of the lecture was Gordon’s, and he put up slides showing the effects of climate change over the last couple of decades. Most reading this blog will likely be aware of much of this, but what people aren’t prepared for are the sheer numbers. Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of some 400,000 annually.  That’s a number higher than the population of all of the London, Ontario. Most of these take place in developing countries, especially in Africa, where damage to agricultural production from extreme weather linked to the changing environment is contributing to deaths from malnutrition, poverty, and associated diseases. Globally, air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels separately contributed to the deaths of at least 4.5 million people a year.

Please don’t gloss over these numbers – they are HUGE and represent not only a deterioration but a threat to the human condition. All these deaths cost the world more than $1.2 trillion in productivity, wiping 1.6% annually from the Global Domestic Product.

This research data is coming from a 331-page report titled Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of A Hot Planet. Written by a team of 50 scientists, economists and policy experts, it was a study commissioned by 20 governments. Likely you’ve never heard of it because it was filed away by media outlets exuding over Kate Middleton’s pregnancy or the near fisticuffs in the House of Commons this week. Naturally, we’re happy for the first and saddened by the second, but the climate change report contains implications for each of us. Yes, the tragedy is being played out at its most extreme in other parts of the world, but it was those very regions that this country once felt a commitment toward. By putting such numbers out of our mind, we hide our national DNA in the closet.

My part in the lecture was to bring the story home by way of personal narrative. I could never do it justice, but the sight of families roving through Africa in search of food, water and a living has had deep repercussions on me – something I recounted to the students. For the first time since my Sudanese son came to Canada, he will be returning with us in January and the land he knew back then has already been irrevocably altered by an ever-shifting environment. Refugees have flooded into the area, threatening to overrun services and exacerbate tensions. He once told me of having to spend days walking through Darfur in search of some groundnuts to eat and keep the family alive. He would have to walk a lot farther now. Even with the arrival of peace, the implications of climate change will still have his historic community over a barrel.

My son Ater is only just now learning that Africa adds hardly anything to greenhouse gas totals. He is trying to get his head around the fact that opulence in the West has created such devastation in a continent that bears no responsibility for the change. It’s something we should wrestle with too, for the ethical implications of our actions and buying habits having direct and indirect effects on remote African communities is something we can put out of our minds if we wish, but only at the price of negating our humanity. We are only human as we can project outside of ourselves to feel empathy for others. Lose that and we lose ourselves.

Witnessing all this can be a cause of deep despair, which most prefer to shrug off. But yesterday morning three things filled me with hope. The African people are the most adaptive on earth and represent a great investment. Second, just witnessing those Masters students humbled me. Should they decide to work together with all their abilities, they will build a climate for change. And, finally, for a two-hour period I stood in the shadow of a powerful advocate, not only for environmental reform but for the human condition. As long as the Gordon McBeans of the world maintain their advocacy, there is yet hope for all humanity.