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The Elephant in the Sweltering Sun: The Human Cost of Climate Change

by Claire Havens, ACT Researcher

It’s a sad situation that plays itself out regularly in northeastern Africa. Drought-stricken and conflict weary Somalians and Ethiopians flee the hardships of their country and head south, desperately trying to make it to South Africa where life might be a little more kind. Their treacherous journeys necessitate dealing with human smugglers who have little incentive to ensure their safe passage, and tragedy often ensues. A recent BBC article reported on the death of 42 Ethiopian migrants who had asphyxiated in the back of a truck passing through Tanzania to greener pastures in Malawi. A week prior, another article detailed the tragic drowning of 47 migrants, also from Ethiopia, in Lake Malawi when an overloaded boat taking them south capsized.

Ethiopian Migrants, Courtesy of Ayyaantuu News Online

While I applaud the BBC for highlighting these important issues that we in the western world would otherwise be oblivious to, there’s a distinct lack of information on the impetus behind these migrations. What is pushing Ethiopians and Somalians out of the northeastern part of the continent with such desperation?

Valerie Ramos, United Nations (UN) humanitarian relief coordinator on the border between Somalia and Ethiopia laments, “Everything I’ve heard has said that we used to have drought every ten years [in Ethiopia], then it became every five years and now it’s every two years.”

The cause of these increasingly frequent droughts is very likely climate change. In a region with rapid population growth, rain-fed agriculture and diminishing water and arable land resources, drought and the related rise of conflict are directly linked to a changing climate. Many media outlets, however, are simply omitting this ugly truth and that’s not just apparent in international reports on climate refugees. Check out these statistics from media coverage of the links between climate change and recent wildfires that have been ravaging the Western United States. Only 3 percent of news reports mentioned one of the major causes of the fires – rising global temperatures.

Courtesy of the National Interagency Fire Center

While it might be an uncomfortable realization for westerners that fossil fuel use is directly causing misery in poorer, harsher regions of the world as well as in our own backyards, that is the reality. We need to know the truth: global warming is leading to desperation and we are not as far removed from the cause of the suffering as we would like to believe.

Omitting the terms “climate change” and “global warming” from a report on climate refugees or a story on a grandfather in Colorado who has lost his home, removes the reader from the problems emerging at home and abroad. But it also removes us from the solution.

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