Africa and the hypocrisy of climate change

Want to help Africa? Stop driving your car. That may be unwelcome news to those who burned through a tank driving to the Live 8 gig, but the simple truth is that the fate of Africa depends as much on dealing with global warming as it does with increased aid.

The recent report “Africa: Up in Smoke?” co-authoured by Oxfam with a preface from Archbishop Desmond Tutu makes that very point, and details the many reasons with the world’s poorest continent is also the most threatened by the impacts of human induced climate change.

Fourteen countries in Africa already endure devastating water shortages. This number is expected to increase to twenty-five by 2030. Recent research shows that global warming will reduce overall rainfall in southern Africa 10% by 2050.

Small-scale farming produces most of the food in Africa. It also provides employment for 70% of the working people. Global climate change will dangerously undermine the ability of Africans to feed and support themselves by making these droughts far more likely.

“In our models, the Indian Ocean shows very clear and dramatic warming into the future, which means more and more drought for southern Africa,” said Dr. James W. Hurrell, author of a recent study by the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Dr. Richard Washington, of Oxford University is somewhat more blunt: “When the rains fail, people die.” The last major drought in southern Africa in 2002 left over 14 million people in need of direct food aid.

African coastal areas are also at risk from extreme weather and rising sea levels. We can expect more frequent disasters like Mozambique’s devastating floods of February 2000, which affected the livelihoods of 1.5 million people and cost $550 million in reconstruction and emergency relief.

It is no small irony that human induced climate change is as much of an imposition on the developing world as oppressive economic policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

The average American produces sixty five times as much carbon dioxide per capita as someone who lives in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between 1980 and 2001, Africa was one of very few areas of the world to experience a decline in per capita carbon dioxide emissions – not because of conservation efforts but due to increasing poverty.

Incredibly, the developed world actually provides far more aid to their domestic fossil fuel industries than to impoverished Africa. In the late 1990’s, rich countries subsidized their domestic, fossil-fuel industries to the tune of $73 billion per year.

In contrast, the recent debt relief program announced with great fanfare will amount to only about $1.5 billion per year shared between eighteen debtor countries.

The plight of Africa is ostensibly a top priority in the up coming G8 meeting. So what are the leading economies of the world pledging to collectively do to halt climate change? The short answer is absolutely nothing.

A draft communiqué leaked last week for the upcoming G8 meeting in Gleneagles Scotland speaks volumes. The US is apparently seeking to remove even such milquetoast statements as: “Our world is warming", "The problem is urgent", “The increase is due in large part to human activity", and most tellingly, "The world's developed economies have a responsibility to show leadership".

Not content with merely doing nothing about climate change, the most powerful nations on earth also appear intent on saying nothing as well. In light of the very public hand wringing about the plight of beleaguered Africans, this collective cowardice truly explores the upper stratosphere of hypocrisy.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said eloquently in the preface to this report, “The richest countries of the world, as represented by the G8, have a responsibility to help the poorest. This is not just charity, but a moral obligation.”

We need to hear those words and act on them. This means debt relief, increased aid and fair trade practices. Just as importantly, it means dealing with the massive and looming crisis facing the entire planet and Africa in particular resulting from our addiction to oil.

The West needs to help Africa to leapfrog “dirty development” by directing new investment to renewable sources of energy, and removing obstacles to technology transfer. These renewable energy sources also have added benefits for human health by reducing air pollution, and the need to cut local forests for fuel.

There is also an urgent need to provide directed aid to small-scale farmers that will allow them to adapt to some degree of climate change that is now inevitable.

And finally, the developed world needs to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption. Want to help Africa? Get out of your car.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Cancer and Chemicals

Cancer. There is scarcely one of us that have not been touched in someway by this dreadful disease. In Canada, it is now projected to afflict one in every 2.2 men and one in every 2.6 women in their lifetime. In the 1930’s, those numbers were less that one in ten. What’s happening? Why are we now seeing what many are calling a “cancer epidemic”?

Some would suggest that we are simply an aging population and cancer is a disease of the old. Not true. Recent statistics show that the net incidence rate of cancer has increased 25% for males 20% for females from 1974 to 2005 - after correcting for the effects of aging.

Children are increasingly the victims. Researchers in the UK have shown that certain childhood cancers such as leukemia and brain cancer have increased by over one third since the 1950’s.

In Canada, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised and spent for cancer research and treatment. It has become a shared Canadian value to run, wear ribbons, and donate money - all towards mitigating cancer.

The elephant in the room however is the contribution of environmental toxins, and whether many of the cancers striking Canadians can be avoided rather than simply managed.

The World Health Organization estimates that fully one quarter of cancers worldwide are caused by occupational and environmental factors other than smoking. You don’t have to look far for some potential chemical culprits.

There are over 85,000 chemicals that are currently licenced for use in North America. Less than half have ever been tested for human health risk, and even fewer for potential environmental impacts.

The US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recently turned their attention towards pollution detection – not in the environment, but within the human body. Their study in 2002 found the presence of 81 different toxic chemicals, including PCBs, benzene and other carcinogens in their sampling of 2500 people tested.

It is somewhat of a no-brainer that reducing exposure to known carcinogens will reduce the risk of developing cancer. Surprisingly, this simple logic seems to have been lost on our federal government.

Many chemicals that are scientifically demonstrated carcinogens or otherwise toxic are freely used in Canada here without any legal obligation to even identify them on the label. Some of these same chemicals are entirely banned elsewhere. A trip to your local supermarket reveals a small sample of these hidden poisons:

- Mothballs contain either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene, both of which are carcinogenic. A recent U.S. study linked mothball use to an increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

- Polycarbonate plastics used in food-grade plastic containers such as water bottles can leach Bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking chemical linked to a variety of disorders including hormone-related birth defects, learning disabilities, prostate cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

- Several leading perfumes, nail polishes and other cosmetic products sold in Canada contain the endocrine-disrupting phthalates DBP and DEHP, both of which have been banned for use in cosmetic products in European Union countries.

- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs are very commonly chemical fire retardants found in everything from foam mattresses to computer parts. They have similar properties to the now outlawed PCBs, and are known neurotoxins and hormone disrupters. The most dangerous forms are now banned in the European Union, though they remain completely legal here in Canada.

- Many leading brands of household laundry detergent contain trisodium nitrilotriacetate, another suspected carcinogen as well as an environmental pollutant.

Besides being a human tragedy, cancer and other chemical related disorders are also an enormous burden to our public health care system. It is estimated that cancer alone costs the country over $14 billion each year in treatment costs and lost productivity.

Chemicals that endanger human life also go down the drain and impact the environment. A somewhat gruesome example involved a dead orca that washed up south of Vancouver in 2000 that was so contaminated with persistent chemicals that the federal government considered shipping the carcass to the Swan Hills toxic waste facility for incineration.

Like orcas, we are perched at the top of the food chain and are becoming the unwitting receptacles of many of the chemicals designed to make our lives more convenient. Ballooning cancers rates are simply not worth whiter clothes or fewer moths.

Cancer must be fought on many fronts. Research and treatment are undeniably important but so is environmental cancer prevention. It is therefore shocking that our government is not moving faster to ban known and suspected carcinogens, and requiring mandatory “right to know” labeling so that Canadians can better protect themselves and their families.

Anything less is quite simply putting the interests of the chemical industry ahead of human life.

Mitchell Anderson is a board member of the Labour Environmental Allinace Society (www.leas.ca). This piece was published in the Toronto Star in June 2005.